As part of our celebration of Canada’s 150th, The Philanthropist is profiling Canadians from across the non-profit sector and putting a face to 150 individuals who work or volunteer in Canada’s social sector.
Name: Don McRae
Profession (current role in the sector): Retired Research Curmudgeon
Years working and/or volunteering in the non-profit sector: I worked for over 30 years with charities professionally in the federal government. My personal involvement as a volunteer and executive member of charities and other nonprofits spans over 45 years.
Can you describe a defining moment in your career working/volunteering in the non-profit sector?
The one defining moment in my federal career occurred in 1995. There was a window of opportunity to gain tax measures favourable to charities. I directed my group to gather all of the information that we had on the sector. We had statistics, economic models for donations and arguments on the importance of the sector. We put it together in a “draft” document and circulated it to the sector to help them build their case before the Standing Committee on Finance. The sector succeeded in getting some tax measures.
Our rules would never have allowed us to circulate an approved document to the sector in time. We never finished the “draft” as it had served its purpose. It taught me how to work within the system. It was the best thing we never did.
Describe your desk/workspace.
When my youngest son is at university, his bedroom is my office. I use the desk, a bookcase, his bed and the floor to place the piles of notes and reference materials that support my research. When he is home, I use my clothes closet (not quite as functional).
What are reading or following that has expanded your understanding of the non-profit sector?
I go through the CRA charities database on a regular basis to research the number of charities gaining and losing charitable registration. I use various sources to follow the evolution of the sector: Imagine Canada research, newsfeeds, emails and reports from selected charities and non-profits, books, reports and the web-sites of various groups.
I also read topical books on political science, history and philosophy. I find it helps to think about charities in a different way. I am about to start Deus Homo.
For you as a past author with the journal, please share with us your reflections, reaction, thoughts about what has changed and/or stayed the same?
I re-read You Can’t Get There From Here on the state of voluntary sector research in Canada. There were two things that struck me in our relationship with governments. The first is that, even though the sector may have friendly provincial and federal governments, major charities need to push and move the agenda on their own. They need broad support from foundations, corporations and individuals to undertake projects.
We have hopefully learned from our past experience. Take support for literacy organizations. Both Conservative and Liberal federal governments supported literacy initiatives. They increased funding, shaped the delivery of the service, created new benchmarks and then withdrew funding. Many organizations were not prepared for this and groups with decades of knowledge, skills and experience closed shop. And this scenario happens across all program areas.
Canada is poorer for that.
This is an ideal time for the sector to adjust its expectations. It may mean that the sector aims low in its aspirations and reach with new projects, but that is the price of independence.
The second thing that I remarked on is a lack of accountability.
Charities and voluntary organizations that deal with government have a series of accountability hoops to jump through to in order to get and maintain support. The sector doesn’t ask for the same thing from our governments, even when funding is suddenly withdrawn. If we work together because we have a shared agenda, then we need to share risk and responsibility. Governments have to be accountable to the Canadian public for the damage they inflict on the institutions that make up the charitable sector.
I propose that the sector negotiate to create an oversight body on government sector relations. The sector here and in Britain found that an Accord or a Compact do not last long or well under governments that reduce or withdraw funding. The body would be funded by an endowment so that changes in government would not affect its independence let alone its existence. It would be small, but robust enough to conduct research and comment on sector government affairs. It would review sector-department relations in the same way that the Auditor General reviews departments and programs. It would also recommend policy changes on support to the sector and charities.
The sector has been in this position too many times federally and provincially. We know how ends and yet each time we keep on quietly hoping the results will change. The sector needs an independent body to hold governments to account for their actions and to document the damage when they renege on agreements.
 For example, the Parliamentary Budget Office had a staff of 18 and a Budget of $2.8M in 2012.
Do you know someone we should profile as part of this series? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org