Changing the story: The Canada-wide push to recognize workers in the non-profit sector

As Nova Scotia gets ready to celebrate its second Day of Recognition for the non-profit sector, one foundation is on a mission to “close the recognition gap” on a national level.

As Nova Scotia gets ready to celebrate its second Day of Recognition for the non-profit sector, one foundation is on a mission to “close the recognition gap” on a national level.

It was 11:30 at night when the phone rang. Saida Gazie, newcomer program coordinator at Veith House – a non-profit community hub in Halifax – was fast asleep. She recognized the voice of one of the Syrian refugees living in her building. “Something is wrong with my son,” the woman said in Arabic. Gazie got dressed and took the elevator up to the eighth-floor apartment. She called 911, translating the operator’s instructions for the mother to help her nine-year-old, who was now in shock, until the paramedics arrived.

It’s precisely this kind of situation – a newcomer who can’t speak English faced with an emergency – that makes Gazie ignore her supervisor’s advice to turn off her phone after four o’clock, to rest. “My rest is when I help people, actually,” she says.

If that’s the case, then Gazie should be extremely well rested. On any given day, she oversees an ever-expanding roster of programs at Veith House – from sewing to gardening to a catering initiative called Newcomer Kitchen Party. Under Gazie’s watch, the conversation club has grown from two to 183 participants. She organizes outings to Mi’kmaq cultural sites, city parks, libraries. She accompanies newcomers on bus rides across Halifax to doctors’ offices, Service Canada. On top of her 40-hour work week, she volunteers for four different organizations. “Weekends are really busy,” she says. She’s also the sole earner for her family (her husband, who has a PhD in electrical engineering, is currently unemployed), crocheting and making bread to make ends meet. In addition, she sends financial support to her siblings in Libya – the country she emigrated from in 2006 and where she worked as an industrial engineer.

Gazie is one of Nova Scotia’s more than 20,000 non-profit-sector workers – 4.5% of the entire labour force – serving their communities for wages 20% lower than other industries in the province. The only complaint Gazie has about her job is that once a year she doesn’t know if her position will exist anymore. “My heart stops every March,” she says, the month she learns whether her position will be funded or not. “But today I’m happy,” she says. “I have work until March 31, 2023.”

The contributions to our society’s well-being are well-documented and immense. Yet all too often, the sector and its dedicated professionals are overlooked and undervalued.

Bhayana Family Foundation

This week will mark Nova Scotia’s second Day of Recognition for the non-profit sector. In 2020, at the first Day of Recognition (and the first for Canada), Gazie won an Invisible Champion Award – a peer-nominated award, dubbed the Oscars of the non-profit world, funded by the Bhayana Family Foundation (BFF).

Since 2006, the BFF – in partnership with United Ways, provincial non-profit organizations, and politicians and governments across Canada – has been on a mission to “close the recognition gap” for the sector, distributing awards to more than 1,300 individuals and 325 organizations (and counting). In 2018, at the Senate Committee on the Charitable Sector, the BFF began advocating for a national day of recognition. “The contributions to our society’s well-being – and to our economy – are well-documented and immense. Yet all too often, the sector and its dedicated professionals are overlooked and undervalued,” BFF’s website notes.

Slowly, province by province, Raksha M. Bhayana, BFF co-founder and CEO, sees signs that this could be changing. In December 2021, the Ontario legislature unanimously passed Bill 9: An Act to Proclaim Non-Profit Sector Appreciation Week. And Alberta is next on the list, with United Way Calgary and the BFF in the process of creating a day of recognition for Alberta’s non-profit sector.

Bhayana, who transitioned from a career in the non-profit sector to becoming involved in her family business, is well-positioned to help usher in a new era of recognition. She has firsthand experience navigating both corporate and non-profit realms, and observations about how they operate.

We always talk about what we need from the community; we don’t talk about the impact. We don’t talk about the lives that get transformed.

Raksha M. Bhayana

One of the first differences she noted was a corporate world filled with bonuses, incentives, and awards. “I never once heard about an award during my two decades in the sector,” she says. An idea germinated. When the Bhayana family set up their foundation, Raksha realized that recognition could be their niche. Today, she’s armed with statistics about the importance of recognition, called “employee engagement” in HR speak, such as how 70% of workers say that recognition is as important as compensation. A recent article in Harvard Business Review, looking at COVID burnout in the non-profit sector, suggests that “symbolic awards,” such as public recognition, “can significantly increase intrinsic motivation, performance, and retention rates.”

For Gazie, winning the Invisible Champion Award meant a welcome infusion of cash – she bought a computer and took her family out for dinner with the $1,000. But it also meant validation from a community – in the north end of Halifax, with few newcomers – that hadn’t always accepted her. “When I started at Veith House, people would say to my supervisor, ‘What is she doing here – a woman with hijab?’ But now they come and say, ‘Where is Saida?’” When Gazie looks at the trophy her 15-year-old daughter still displays on her bedroom shelf, she says, “I feel like my work is valuable, that people appreciate me.”

We are more than the poor inverse of profits (aka ‘nonprofits’). We are more than a response to market failures.

Annika Voltan, IONS

While the sector copes with what the latest Giving Report describes as “unprecedented strain” as we enter the third year of the pandemic, including labour shortages and a decrease in volunteers, there is a window of opportunity to increase awareness about the people who keep it afloat. An article in The Conversation notes, “Make no mistake, the ability for non-profits to continue to serve their communities is a testament to their passion, with non-profit team members pouring their heart and soul into their organizations.”

In a Philanthropic Foundations Canada guest blog post, Bhayana calls such teams “our invisible scaffolding.” Unfortunately, many people don’t know how that scaffolding works. Bhayana is surprised when she discovers that high-profile, well-educated people – politicians, business leaders, journalists – know so little about the sector. She says the sector might be partially responsible for this lack of knowledge. A lack of resources makes marketing challenging, and the constant need to fundraise detracts from other messaging. “We always talk about what we need from the community; we don’t talk about the impact. We don’t talk about the lives that get transformed.”

Impact is exactly the word Annika Voltan, executive director of Impact Organizations of Nova Scotia (IONS), formerly the Community Sector Council of Nova Scotia, is focusing on these days. In a post to launch the organization’s new identity, Voltan stresses a shift from viewing non-profits as a “sub-form” of the business mindset: “We are more than the poor inverse of profits (aka ‘nonprofits’). We are more than a response to market failures.”

Voltan sees the BFF awards and Nova Scotia’s Day of Recognition as “part of a bigger approach” to build momentum in the transformation of the sector. “There’s so much more to the story than building an economy,” she says. Perceptions of a sector fuelled by a “raise the barn” spirit where “scrappiness” is key are old-school, she says. This is a sophisticated and complex sector, she says, filled with highly skilled individuals in possession of “great emotional intelligence.” Despite all this, despite its highly educated workforce, despite its economic clout, she describes the sector as being “chronically undervalued.”

Sara Napier, CEO of United Way Halifax, prefers the term “misunderstood.” Those outside of the sector see “a group of people who do good, and who try their best to do good, and spend a lot of time making miracles happen.” They don’t understand sector workers’ expertise, the complexities of day-to-day interactions with multiple stakeholders. They don’t see “the nimbleness, the strategy, the dedication, the diversity.”

However, people are generally supportive of the sector, she says, especially in Nova Scotia, where nearly half the population volunteers. Maybe we’re not good marketers because “we’re a very humble kind of culture,” she says, or maybe because “we’re just too busy doing the work,” or maybe the real reason is less palatable. The sector is not a “segment of society with a lot of traditional power,” says Napier. In Nova Scotia, three-quarters of the sector is female; in Ontario, it’s 80%.

From letters to elected officials, to reports such as Resetting Normal: Funding a Thriving Women’s Sector, to a Globe and Mail op-ed, to an article in Psychology Today, to a worker health-and-safety study, what’s called the “feminization” of the sector, and the accompanying “care penalty,” has been well documented. An article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review – “Like the Vacuuming, Nonprofit Work Is Women’s Work” – compares the female-majority non-profit sector to the male-majority private sector, reflecting on stark differences in compensation, investment, and media coverage, where “like Cinderella relegated to housework, nonprofits toil tirelessly with little regular attention from the press.” The result is a “have-and-have-not situation, where one side holds the money and power, and the other side asks for an allowance to do their ‘good work,’ trying to get traction but more often getting stuck in a rut created by this dysfunctional dynamic.”

Getting traction can often mean demonstrating impact in terms of dollars and cents and return on investment (ROI). Some researchers question ROI’s place in the sector. An article in the Canadian Journal of Nonprofit and Social Economy Research examines a three-decade neoliberal shift toward funding dependent on demonstrating measurable impacts, which, ultimately, “structures the ways that work is organized and valued within nonprofit organizations.” Ultimately, this is at odds with the human aspects of working in the sector, the authors note, “blurring the boundaries between working for social change and engaging in social entrepreneurship,” and leading to burnout and feelings of hopelessness.

A social return on investment [means shifting the focus] from financial impacts to the effects on people and planets.

These types of issues are top of mind for the BFF, forming an important part of their advocacy campaigns to demonstrate alternate ways of measuring impact to a variety of stakeholders. L’Arche Toronto posted a video on YouTube to redefine ROI, promoting their organization’s return on interconnectedness, imagination, independence.

“Social impact does not need to demonstrate an immediate financial return on investment,” Bhayana says. To demonstrate a return usually requires hiring consultants, she says, an expense beyond the reach of many organizations. But when this is made possible, the results are impressive. A 2007 report by the Boston Consulting Group, now a kind of Holy Grail in the non-profit world, showed that helping individuals from low-income communities graduate from high school reaped long-term financial gains for society at large. Pathways to Education – a non-profit community-based education system in Toronto’s Regent Park – delivered a $24 return for every dollar invested, along with many other benefits, the report found.

Shifting to a social return on investment (SROI), which Social Value International defines as a shift away from financial impacts to “the effects on people and planets,” aligns with a global imperative to address a host of urgent issues, from a “code red” climate emergency, to unprecedented inequality, to the spread of violent conflict. In 2017, a World Health Organization discussion paper recommended SROI as a “holistic approach,” aligning with mandates of fostering “just and inclusive societies” and “leaving no one behind.” Social Value UK’s Guide to SROI describes this new way of viewing investment as “a story about change.”

If ever there were a perfect setting for this story, Nova Scotia might just be it. “We’re small enough and big enough, with just the right size to make something special happen,” says Napier. The 6,400 registered non-profit organizations in the province are so busy “getting the job done,” she says, that “we don’t spend a lot of time jumping up and down and saying, ‘Look at us!’ But perhaps we should because there’s a lot of innovation, a lot of compassion, a lot of resilience, and a lot of dreaming that happens in Nova Scotia.”

She only has to think of the Invisible Champion Award winners to see this made tangible. When asked which of their stories has affected her the most, Napier doesn’t hesitate: “All of them.” When they accept their award, you can tell they’re not used to being recognized, she says, adding that she often finds it difficult to hold back tears.

Voltan says it’s imperative that we change the story and recognize the impact of the sector before it’s too late. In “We Need a Healthy Community Impact Sector: Here’s Why You Should Care,” she expands on economist Raghuram Rajan’s The Third Pillar, where the sector is the third leg of a stool holding up society alongside the state and markets, by using the analogy of a house. After two years of the pandemic, this pillar is wobbly, she writes, and while our house may have a foundation (state) and fixtures and floors (markets), it’s not a home. The sector creates home, she argues, with a goal to “weave the fabric of our communities so that no one is left behind.”

For Gazie, whose experience in the sector began when she was feeling lost in a new country and a stranger took her to a community centre, creating home is the essence of what she does. Now, she is the one bringing strangers to her programs: “Nova Scotia is home now.” The sector might not be perfect, she says, and of course she misses her country, “but no one will starve here.” The community just won’t let that happen. When she asks her vast network of connections for help, they respond. “Recently, I put a message on Facebook asking for fabric for the sewing program,” she says, “and now you can’t see me for all the fabric in my office.”


Weekly news & analysis

Staying current on the Canadian non-profit sector has never been easier

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.