The Philanthropist interview: Niki Sharma

As of last October, BC’s non-profit sector has a “home” in government, in the person of MLA Niki Sharma, Parliamentary Secretary for Community Development and Non-Profits. Her mandate: ensure a smooth pandemic recovery and act as the sector’s advocate and point of contact in government.

As of last October, BC’s non-profit sector has a “home” in government, in the person of MLA Niki Sharma, Parliamentary Secretary for Community Development and Non-Profits. Her mandate: ensure a smooth pandemic recovery and act as the sector’s advocate and point of contact in government.

It’s official: the charitable and non-profit sector has a “home” in government in BC.

The face of that home is Niki Sharma, elected in the province’s October election. The MLA for Vancouver-Hastings is now BC’s Parliamentary Secretary for Community Development and Non-Profits, joining a small handful of elected officials across Canada with the specific role of governmental point person for the charitable and non-profit sector.

Sharma’s mandate is twofold: working with the sector to ensure a smooth pandemic recovery and “acting as the advocate and key point of contact within government.”

That’s a big task for a diverse sector. For Sharma, a former vice-president of Vancity Credit Union and chair of the Vancouver Park Board, it’s an exciting continuation of her work with, for, and in the sector that dates back to when she was a teenager.

Five months into her role, The Philanthropist spoke with Sharma about what she does and her vision for the future of the sector’s relationship with the government.

Can you tell us a bit about your prior experiences working and volunteering with non-profits, and how they influence how you approach your role as Parliamentary Secretary for Community Development and Non-Profits?

I’ve always been inspired by people organizing around an issue to make their community better. For me, it started with environmental organizing in high school to get some better recycling in our community. And it grew from there. I’ve been either a director or a volunteer or sitting on the board of non-profits since then, up to this role today.

I’ve also had the opportunity as a lawyer to represent non-profits in their incorporation, in issues they might encounter, or to work to manage non-profit programs — just experiencing the issues that non-profits face from all angles.

It really has given me a lot of firsthand experience about not only the creativity, ingenuity, and passion that goes into the sector, but also the issues that are faced on different levels.

Your mandate includes acting as an advocate in government for the non-profit sector. What does this look like on a day-to-day basis?

I feel so honoured that I get to be the voice of non-profits within government. These first few months of my mandate have been an exciting opportunity to figure out how this role fits within government — and how we can have the maximum impact. There are a lot of very practical things that we need to work through. And there are a lot of big ideas that we need to process.

I am meeting with people on a daily basis. I firmly believe that if you want to understand what’s going on, you have to talk to people on the front line. But we also very quickly realized that a lot of our work is internal — meeting with various decision-makers and staff and helping us understand internally where non-profits fit, why they need to be included in certain programs, or how we treat them in our procurement and our contracting.

I have two big responsibilities. One is understanding how non-profits are experiencing the COVID recovery and making sure that government is understanding of that, and responsive. The other is more long-term. We as a government, and as a society, need to really take stock of the large impact that non-profits as a sector play in our province. Their issues need a proper seat at the table. If I can help our government work through how to be better partners with non-profits, they’ll be able to do even more great work in the community.

You’ve talked about trying to look at the social impacts created by the charitable and non-profit sector that “aren’t normal markers in our decision-making” in government. How could the government factor in these social impacts?

That’s exciting work. We’re researching some of the ways that other jurisdictions have done this, but it really comes down to the fact that, as governments in traditional capitalist economies, we have certain markers we use to measure economic impact: non-profits are contributing $6.4 billion towards our GDP.

But what about those other impacts that show up in our society? Non-profits step in when government is not able to do something, or fails to do something, or the market is not interested. And that has a lot of impacts – not only economic.

We’re at the stage of tapping into the thought leadership now and really thinking about how we bring that internally into our decision-making.

What kinds of metrics can charities and non-profits use to measure the effectiveness or success of this new parliamentary secretary role?

I think about this a lot. One measure will be the existence of more permanent structures that outlast and extend beyond my role that allow government to support and engage non-profits as a sector.

Another metric will be a change in the policies that have affected non-profits that they’ve been looking for improvement on — the nuts and bolts that need to change in terms of the partnership between governments and non-profits.

We have quite the list now of what that includes: everything from best practices in terms of procurement and contracting with non-profits, to how certain types of legislation like the Lobbying Act registry impact non-profits, to how we acknowledge non-profits and their contributions.

The thing that will be my marker personally of whether we are successful is if we can continually make the case internally to have non-profits discussed the same way as important small businesses.

Non-profits have a place in economic recovery, but sometimes we think of them separately from small businesses or other drivers of economic recovery. Why do we think of things that way? And how can we do this differently?


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