Of all the national and international “days”, there are few as important to mark as the International Day of Charity. Today, I celebrate charities across the country and around the world. I celebrate what they have done for all of us, what they are doing today, and what they will do in the future. Charities touch all aspects of our lives and every cause we care about. I celebrate the daycares and schools my children went to, the hospitals my sons and I have been treated at, and the charities that helped us in moments of crisis and feeling lost. I celebrate the charities helping migrants at the US border, and helping newcomers settle in Canada. I celebrate the after school clubs that give young people a place to belong, and the environmental action organizations fighting for our future.
The charitable sector in Canada is big: there are 86,000 charities, and the sector employs 1.4 million Canadians full-time and contributes an estimated $151 billion to Canada’s GDP. Charities work in every province and territory in Canada. Yet, most of us don’t really know the charitable sector, are not aware of the struggles that the people working in the sector face, and don’t fully appreciate the consequence of a strong charitable sector on the health, vitality, and equality of the Canadian economy and civil society.
When I joined CanadaHelps in 2013, I joined as a business person set on doing good. Even though I had always been involved with charities and gave financially, like many other business professionals and fellow Canadians, my view of the charitable sector was dramatically incomplete.
My years of C-suite work in business and technology companies led me to naïvely believe that charities’ operational and organizational challenges could be addressed by the application of business techniques of analysis, optimization, scaling etc. More broadly, I can see how this idea has seeped in as a dominant belief paradigm in Canadian society, certainly by the new crop of “we will fix social issues” enthusiasts armed by the skills and knowledge charities don’t have. But after six years in this sector, all I can say is not so fast.
While it’s true that many charities could operate in a more efficient manner if there was more so-called “business” knowledge inside, that belief fails to fully understand what charities deal with and the endless complexity, ambiguity and messiness.
Scaling programs to address food scarcity, or reducing the effects of economic inequality or environmental degradation, or simply our cruelty to each other, is different than optimizing pricing models, scaling production profitably, extracting bigger margins, or growing EBITDA. Making human lives better does not often have an easy financial model. I’ve come to be humbled by the difficulty of the problem-solving in this space. I say to everyone: solving these problems is much, much, much harder than what we deal with in the for-profit.
And yet with these challenges, there is a persistent public expectation that charities should operate on a dime, they should not extend their hand too often to ask for funding, and charity employees should be miracle workers. Ironically, when charities fail to scale, it’s perceived as their fault. We don’t see how our mind-set as funders and observers contributes to it, or what it might mean for our grandkids.
It’s easy to get caught up in this line of thinking – the sector itself is run by people who have chosen a life of service to others or to causes. They do not promote themselves and what they do in the ways that are common and expected in the for-profit sector; this has really created a vacuum of knowledge and understanding of the charitable sector. It wasn’t until I started meeting with charities, especially smaller ones, and learning about the sector, that I started developing a more accurate view of the enormous contribution charities make.
I also began to understand the challenges charities face. Funding is a big one: governments touting austerity are cutting funding to charities while also to services (leaving charities to pick up the slack); fewer Canadians are giving financially; and a reliance on short-term grants and donations makes long-term projects and planning really hard. Staffing is also incredibly challenging because of the above funding challenges, as well as an expectation that charities shouldn’t spend too much on “management and administration”, both of which keep wages and professional development opportunities in the sector lower than in other sectors. These issues are compounded now as charities are trying to keep up with a quickly changing digital world and changing donor expectations. Online is on track to become a dominant method of giving, and the way donors and supporters expect to engage with charities is completely different than it was ten years ago – and this will only continue to evolve. Without adequate funding and staff with the right skills and know-how, adapting to these changes will be impossible for many charities.
It is because of these challenges, as well as the misconceptions around them, that I am still here in my role at CanadaHelps; I can work to address these challenges and supporting the broader cause of a strong charitable sector. I will do my part.
If charities were better at bragging about what they do, we might finally get it. Charities are so often unfairly judged and poorly understood – yet, we owe them, now and tomorrow! I am enormously grateful that I got here and can see all this clearly. This is why I am celebrating today and adding my voice to support of charities. I have come to love charities and the people in the space, because I now see how absolutely horrible and far more hopeless the world would be without charities.
Every one of us has been touched by a charity, so today let’s share that with the world.