Another challenge for non-profits

Olivia Nuamah, the new C.E.O. of Toronto’s Atkinson Foundation, was a largely unknown entity so it’s not surprising that an overflow crowd arrived to hear her speak at last month’s meeting of the Toronto Neighbourhood Centres (TNC). She had impressed community attendees at Civic Action’s Greater Toronto Summit 2011 when she was the only one to raise, from a position on the main stage,  the topic of corporate taxes.

Nuamah came for the final hour of the TNC meeting; the discussion persisted well beyond the scheduled end. Nuamah described the culture shock of returning to Toronto, a city where she was born of immigrant parents, educated in the public school system, before emigrating to England as a young adult. After 16 years, she is back with a family, having spent her adult life in European advocacy.

Nuamah remembers the strong community development ethos in the Toronto of her youth, and she explains, she is shell-shocked at the erosion of services she see now. Her recollection of a strong and vital Toronto echo the type of city that Calgary Mayor Nenshi described in his visit here last February:

I was raised in a family in east Calgary in a working class neighbourhood that didn’t have a lot of money. What I had was remarkable opportunity. I graduated from excellent public schools, I explored the city that I love on public transit, I learned to swim very badly in public pools and I spent my Saturday afternoons in the public library. I grew up in a community that gave me a chance to succeed and gave every kid growing up in the community the chance to succeed.”

Now is different. Nuamah is surprised to see how the discussion of neighbourhoods isolates Torontonians from each other, disconnecting us from a common vision. She also sees how non-profits and community agencies have been depleted by multiple layers of reporting and competitive funding structures. Her own Foundation is admittedly a part of this, she said, “funding one agency six different times to do six different things.”

In the end, funders search for the lowest “price per head,” pilot projects become a normal course for service delivery, and auditors make program decisions. The community sector is pressed towards professionalization, further distancing staff and clients from each other. The effect is that neighbourhood agencies function as a corporate arm of city services and are not recognized for the wider scope and value of their community and city-building work. Nuamah described all these dynamics.

So the Atkinson Foundation is trying to find ways to support the non-profit sector. (As it undergoes this renewal, its grants are currently on hold and are set to launch again in 2012.) The foundation’s redeveloped agenda, Nuamah said, will address sustainability and include ideas of networking, sectoral advocacy, and strengthening the capacity of volunteer boards.

The trends towards cost-cutting and others whispers of the transformations from the United Kingdom are popping up here everywhere. “First, it was garbage,” Nuamah explained, describing the growing press for efficiencies as a path to privatization. Meeting participants hooted in recognition.

Nuamah pressed on, advising, we must be ready to work together to face the hard questions. We must think collectively. We must claim the basic right to advocate. We must also get better at communicating, moving away from the polemic and away from university-level language.  If the sector doesn’t start this hard work, the ground will shift before we can act.

The Neighbourhood staff weighed in, too, explaining how non-profits have learned to use every penny, giving greater value than what funders pay for; how the stress builds among staff as the system relies on individual heroes to make it function (One Executive Director in attendance described the regular announcement at her sector’s annual conference of the E.D.’s who had died in the previous year); and, how non-governmental funders had to be ready to defend the non-profit sector since community agencies are too often dismissed as self-interested.

The later afternoon meeting finally ended, but the discussion had only started.

Upcoming Ontario Nonprofit Network un-conference:

Strengthening our Connections for Action

April 12 & 13, 2011

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