The non-profit sector’s ongoing data deficit

There is hope that the data deficit that has plagued the non-profit sector – the only major sector of Canada’s economy expected to collect its own data – for so long may be ending, but as Imagine Canada’s Cathy Barr writes, this is not the time to back off on our lobbying efforts; it is the time to step them up.

There is hope that the data deficit that has plagued the non-profit sector – the only major sector of Canada’s economy expected to collect its own data – for so long may be ending, but as Imagine Canada’s Cathy Barr writes, this is not the time to back off on our lobbying efforts; it is the time to step them up.

The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed many truths: Canada relies heavily on fragile global supply chains; social and economic status affects health outcomes; many essential workers are poorly paid; and data matters. Never before has our collective attention been so focused on data. Case counts, hospitalization numbers, test positivity rates, and the predictions of the latest statistical models are part of daily conversation. Data is being used (sometimes) to make decisions that have immediate and significant impacts on our lives: whether schools and businesses can be open, where people can travel, who should get priority access to limited supplies of vaccines. We are also seeing the problems that occur when data is not available in a timely manner, when there are inconsistencies in how data is collected or reported, and when decision-makers and average citizens misunderstand or ignore the data.

In comparison to the life-and-death importance of data during a pandemic, the non-profit sector’s data deficit may seem insignificant, but it is not. Lack of data on the needs of specific communities and the extent to which those needs are or are not being met has real consequences for people’s lives. Lack of data on the number, location, activities, and impact of non-profit organizations makes it difficult for individual donors to make donation decisions and for governments and other institutional funders to allocate funding efficiently or effectively. Lack of knowledge about how to locate, collect, link, analyze, and communicate data hinders non-profits every day: in their ability to deliver programs and services, advocate for change, obtain and deploy funding, plan for workforce needs, demonstrate their impact, or make strategic decisions about virtually any aspect of their operations.

Five years ago, The Philanthropist published an article by Bernard Rudny about the potential for the newly elected Liberal government to be a “data partner” for the non-profit sector. The optimism expressed in this article is understandable. The Liberals’ 2015 election campaign had emphasized the value of data and the importance of making evidence-based policy decisions. One of the government’s first acts after taking power was to restore the long-form census that had been scrapped by the Conservatives five years earlier. The mandate letters to cabinet ministers, which had been publicly released for the first time ever, suggested that the sector was at least on the new government’s radar.

Unfortunately, the hopes of 2016 have not been realized. As we enter the third decade of the 21st century, we still do not even know how many non-profit organizations there are in Canada. We know how many registered charities there are (about 86,000) because organizations must apply to the Canada Revenue Agency for charitable status and file an annual report with the CRA. It is assumed there are a roughly equal number of incorporated non-profits, but this assumption is based on research that is now almost two decades old. Most non-profits are incorporated at the provincial level, and most provinces do not publish any information about them – not even how many there are. As for how many unincorporated “grassroots” organizations there might be, no one can even hazard a guess. Given this situation, it should not be surprising to learn there is no reliable, comprehensive data on other matters such as where organizations are located, what services they provide, what populations they serve, who governs them, who they employ, or how they generate revenue or spend it.

To get a sense of the enormity of the non-profit sector’s data deficit, all one has to do is compare it to other economic sectors. Take the agriculture sector as just one example. Every five years, Statistics Canada conducts the Census of Agriculture. From this, we know there were 193,492 farms in Canada in 2016, down 5.9% from the previous count in 2011. We know there were 271,935 farm operators, 28.7% of whom were women. Detailed data are collected on livestock and crops. So we know Canada had 6.9 million beef cattle, 14.1 million pigs, and 145.5 million hens and chickens in 2016. We also know that “lentils are now the third-largest crop in Saskatchewan following canola and spring wheat” and “fruits, berries, and nuts acreage rose 6.7% from 2011, mainly due to blueberries and cranberries” (Statistics Canada, 2017). Imagine for just a moment having similarly detailed data on the non-profit sector.

Several organizations have tried to fill the data void. These efforts consume significant resources that might be usefully spent on other activities. At the same time, the resources that sector organizations can deploy are not remotely sufficient to meet the need. Sector data-collection efforts are also hindered by the lack of publicly available lists of non-profits. Imagine Canada has been conducting regular surveys of registered charities since 2009; results from the most recent one were released in February. Imagine Canada has restricted its surveys to charities because this is the only group from which it can select a random sample and then apply weights to ensure the sample reflects the population from which it was drawn. This allows for the generalization of survey results to all charities. (Technically, the results can be generalized to all in-scope charities, which are those with annual revenues greater than $30,000 that are not religious congregations.) Several other organizations conduct similar surveys, mostly at the provincial level. Although most of these surveys include non-profits, most do not use probability sampling methods. As a result, the survey results should not be generalized beyond the organizations that responded.

Why is the non-profit sector in this position? Why are we the only major sector of Canada’s economy that is expected to collect its own basic data? Why do we know more about cattle and pigs and lentils and berries than we know about the organizations that provide some of the nation’s most essential services?

Is it because we are a small, unimportant sector?

Around the turn of the current century, many sector leaders thought the way to get government to pay attention to the sector, and take its concerns seriously, was to demonstrate its size and economic significance. The Voluntary Sector Initiative funded two major research projects to collect this information. From the 2003 National Survey of Nonprofit and Voluntary Organizations (NSNVO), we learned there were approximately 161,000 charities and non-profits in Canada. These organizations had combined revenues of $112 billion and employed about two million people. From the first report of the Satellite Account of Nonprofit Institutions and Volunteering, released in 2004, we learned the economic activity of the sector totalled $61.8 billion, which represented 6.8% of Canada’s gross domestic product (GDP).

This was powerful information – or so we thought. It meant the non-profit sector contributed more to the economy than the agriculture sector; the mining and oil- and gas-extraction sector; the retail trade sector; the accommodation and food services sector; and the motor vehicle manufacturing sector. Surely the government would see the need to listen to and invest in such an important sector – or at least it would see the importance of continuing to collect data about it. But that was not to be. The NSNVO turned out to be a one-time survey. The Satellite Account produced annual reports for a few years but was terminated in 2011 as part of widespread cutbacks at Statistics Canada. The federal government didn’t pay any more attention to the sector than it ever had – and when it did pay attention, it was to question our salaries or political activities.

Is it because we haven’t lobbied hard enough?

Rudny correctly pointed out in his 2016 article that “it takes two to tango. If nonprofits want a better data partner in government, they have to articulate their needs.” A major way to try to influence federal government decisions is through the pre-budget consultation process. Many non-profits participate in this process, and requests for more and better data about the sector have been included in pre-budget consultation briefs in every year since the current government was first elected. Another advocacy tactic is to hold an annual “lobby day” when people sharing a common cause converge on Ottawa to meet with as many MPs, senators, and staffers as possible in a single day. Imagine Canada organized three lobby days during the first Liberal mandate, and data was a featured “ask” at all three. (No lobby day was held in 2019 because of the federal election; the lobby day planned for the spring of 2020 had to be cancelled because of the pandemic.)

Other ways to advocate include meeting with government officials and writing letters. In 2017, representatives of a working group on sector-wide data convened by Imagine Canada met with Chief Statistician Anil Arora and other senior staff at Statistics Canada. At this meeting, the lack of funding to support new data collection was cited as the primary challenge. Following this meeting, the working group wrote a letter to Navdeep Bains, who was then Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development. This letter, which was signed by more than 160 sector leaders, asked the minister to take action to ensure that statistical information about the non-profit sector was prioritized and funded by the Government of Canada.

Many sector organizations also raised the data issue in their submissions and presentations to two major government-funded bodies: the Social Innovation and Social Finance Strategy Co-Creation Steering Group and the Special Senate Committee on the Charitable Sector. And both groups listened. In its 2018 report, the Steering Group recommended that “the Government of Canada expand the evidence base of data and research and provide a new mechanism to coordinate better sharing of data, research and knowledge across social innovation ecosystems in Canada.” The Special Senate Committee, in its 2019 report, recommended that “the Government of Canada prioritize data about the charitable and non-profit sector in all Statistics Canada economic surveys.”

Is it because much of the work of the non-profit sector is care work?

Care work is paid or unpaid work that involves caring for others. Not all non-profit work is care work, but much of it is. Care work has long been undervalued in our society, and many people believe this is because it is mostly done by women, often racialized women. The low value placed on care work can be seen in the low wages paid to people who do it, the low status they are accorded, and the precarious nature of their employment. Similarly, the low value placed on the non-profit sector is evident in public attitudes toward salaries and overhead, in paternalistic funding practices, in outdated legal and regulatory frameworks, and in the failure of governments to treat the sector as an important part of the economy.

There is some evidence, however, that views of the sector are changing. In 2019, the federal government established an Advisory Committee on the Charitable Sector. The committee released its first report in January, the second on April 29, and the third is expected shortly. From the beginning of the pandemic in early 2020, the federal government clearly recognized the importance of the sector. Although we have certainly not received everything we have asked for, significant funding has flowed to the sector – much of it from general relief measures such as the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy that were not specifically targeted at sector organizations but included them. And the 2021 federal budget unequivocally recognized both the importance of care and the importance of charities and non-profits.

There is also some evidence that the sector’s lobbying efforts on data are starting to pay off. In 2019, Statistics Canada published an update to the Satellite Account of Nonprofit Institutions and Volunteering. (It showed the sector now accounts for 8.5% of Canada’s GDP and employs 2.4 million people.) At the end of March, a further update was released, focused on changes in GDP and employment in 2019 and 2020. Earlier this year, Statistics Canada also released the results of a crowdsourced survey of charity and non-profit board directors. This survey was undertaken as a direct result of Senator Ratna Omidvar’s efforts to raise awareness about diversity in the sector. Finally, the Canadian Survey on Business Conditions, a new quarterly survey launched last year to collect data on the impact of the pandemic on businesses, not only includes non-profits but breaks them out in published results.

So there is hope that the data deficit that has plagued the non-profit sector for so long may be ending. This is not the time to back off on our lobbying efforts, though. It is the time to step them up. There are many things we can do for ourselves, but basic data collection is the government’s job. They do it for every other sector and they need to do it for the non-profit sector.


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