The climate crisis, polarization, wellness – for staff and leaders, digital acceleration, the affordability crisis, trust and collaboration. In a time of “polycrisis,” we asked sector leaders what shifts and challenges they’re focused on.
In mid-August of last year, Renee Sanderson, the executive director of the Yellowknife Women’s Society (YKWS), had been planning to leave on vacation with her family. But wildfires were burning just outside the city’s limits. The fires breached control lines around the city. Officials warned of “serious challenges.” And the many vulnerable, underhoused people in Yellowknife who come to YKWS for support – most of whom are Indigenous – needed urgent help.
So Sanderson and her team scrambled to pack emergency bags and assemble lists of their clients’ information – YKWS hosts emergency drop-in shelters, permanent supportive housing, and numerous other programs for vulnerable adults. They didn’t know if or when or how they would evacuate. They scrambled to get information and make plans. There was no plan.
Then news came that everyone in Yellowknife – a city of 20,000 people, hundreds of whom identify as homeless – would have to evacuate. Vulnerable women were put on planes bound for Calgary or Edmonton. Many would end up sleeping on the floor of a shelter in an unfamiliar city almost 2,000 kilometres away. YKWS couldn’t keep contact with everyone. Two clients died in Alberta. “This group should have been kept together in a safe place with staff supports throughout the evacuation,” YKWS said in a statement after the evacuation. “The system chose instead to scatter a large portion of the NWT’s underhoused population across several large unfamiliar southern cities, with no tracking, no supports.”
There are news article saying this summer coming up is going to be another season for wildfires. It’s potentially going to happen again.Renee Sanderson, Yellowknife Women’s Society
It was a scramble for everyone involved. But, as YKWS, points out, it doesn’t have to be that way. “It was a lot of learning – things that we can do better on our end,” Sanderson says, noting the organization didn’t have an emergency plan for a situation like this. Now they’re working on one. “There are news article saying this summer coming up is going to be another season for wildfires,” she says. “It’s potentially going to happen again.” The best they can do is try to be prepared – and continue to try to support their clients as need intensifies.
But it’s been a tough year for many charities and non-profits. Rising costs and demands for services, increased polarization, devastating world events – all take a toll on the sector, its people, and the people it serves. Add in the backdrop of a record-breaking year for Canadian wildfires and other climate-related emergencies and the intense pressure on the sector is clear. Taken together, the sector is facing what’s been dubbed a “polycrisis” – a confluence of global crises with compounding effects, from climate emergencies to affordability to the housing crisis to racism to stretched healthcare systems.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t also successes.
Audrey Rochette, executive director of the Anishnawbe Health Foundation, is excited for a milestone in 2024. After a long process, the Anishnawbe Health Toronto building will finally open in central Toronto. “There’s a lot of work in the sector being done to really remove barriers and to have accessible healthcare for Indigenous Peoples in Canada,” she says. “Something that is so unique about the health centre is from its design – it has a feel of something very welcoming.” She adds, “Just being inviting and less intimidating will remove a barrier in itself.”
Keeping sight of successes will be important for those working in the sector as challenges continue to mount as we begin 2024.
As charities, non-profits, and foundations scramble to tackle the seemingly ever-growing challenges on the front lines across Canada, The Philanthropist Journal once again spoke to leaders from the Northwest Territories to New Brunswick, from those with small budgets to large foundations. As The Journal circled back to leaders – some new voices, some familiar to readers of this annual article – one thing became clear: there are intense new fractures with cascading impacts affecting the sector. But some key issues remain front and centre – putting reconciliation into action, planning for climate change, recruiting staff – and many wondered if change needs to be as slow as it is.
We asked sector leaders what’s top of mind for them as they head into 2024. Here’s what they’re thinking about.
Seeking clarity around positions on world events, politics, and more
The current conflict between Israel and Hamas has resulted in the deaths of thousands of people and more than one million people displaced. It is, without a doubt, on a lot of people’s minds.
It has resulted in ripple effects across the globe, including turmoil in everything from the arts to media to corporations to governments, as organizations grapple with employee well-being, how to have an impact, policy around staff members’ freedom of expression, or issuing external statements. As they cope with how to respond to a devastating and deadly conflict, organizations’ struggles to have transparency around policy and be ready for the polarized nature of today’s difficult conversations may never have been more apparent.
“Many cultural institutions are kind of in a moment of crisis, or faltering,” says Toronto Arts Council president Devyani Saltzman, a Canadian writer, curator, and arts leader with plenty of experience working at the intersection between art, ideas, and social change. The current conflict is not the only source of these tensions, she says. “What happened on October 7, and all that ensued, heightened it. But these fault lines were already emerging.”
Many cultural institutions are kind of in a moment of crisis, or faltering.Devyani Saltzman, Toronto Arts Council
She points to a reckoning within traditional hierarchical structures – where a C-suite answerable to philanthropic interests, but who also have their own political leanings, can butt up against junior creative staff or mid-level management who are trying to be politically vocal. “We’re seeing these tensions flare up where there isn’t internal communication between those levels of organizational hierarchy,” she says. “The fault lines are very exposed, but we don’t have a map forward,” she says.
“When these flare-ups happen, how can organizations serve communities and also balance vested financial interests? I don’t think those conversations are happening. I think it’s very much reaction and action,” she says.
At the same time, Jessica Bolduc, executive director of the 4Rs Youth Movement, an organization that creates spaces for cross-cultural dialogue, sees that organizations’ “fear of losing funding is influencing folks’ action.”
“It breaks my heart,” she says, adding that many young people “feel very connected to that struggle, because of the pattern of colonialism and imperialism that has laid the path for these kinds of violent conflicts.” Bolduc, who is Anishinaabe-French from Batchewana First Nation, also points to a connection to Canadian history when it comes to the history of Indigenous Peoples here.
Despite the heavy feelings, she says, many people may fear the consequences of speaking up: whether it’s losing funding, losing jobs, or losing followers and supporters.
Addressing polarization – and retaining staff – by clarifying values
Juniper Glass, principal consultant with Lumiere Consulting, sees another trend emerging: increased pressure for organizations to align, and state, their values. “I sense that there is a stronger call for integrity and aligning values,” she says. “More and more people in non-profits are feeling empowered to move away from diplomatic language or moderate positions and just stand for true values and the deep care that we have for each other in society.”
But that can – and has – led to rifts. Saltzman sees evidence of diverging values within organizations in a variety of struggles – and departures – in organizations in the non-profit and arts worlds. That leaves her wondering how to move forward. “How can we try to bridge those gaps, even internally within organizations, especially around political agendas?” she asks. She encourages organizations to ask themselves what their true missions, mandates, and policies are. Do you want to inhabit this political space? If you do, she says, be honest and ready for it. If you don’t, be honest and ready for it with your staff.
All of these crises have really caused a lot of non-profit organizations and leaders to be more vocal about their fundamental values.Juniper Glass, Lumiere Consulting
Glass agrees. “All of these crises have really caused a lot of non-profit organizations and leaders to be more vocal about their fundamental values.”
For Saltzman, it’s ambiguity that can lead to internal crises. Organizations that are trying to straddle both sides of a fraught issue are doing neither well, she says. Organizations need to be thinking about how their missions, mandates, and policies can be made clearer and more transparent, she says. “What would more discursive, human communicative dialogue look like, even within organizations?”
Saltzman worries that people are exiting organizations because they don’t feel like they work in places where they can make social change or create artistic works without political tension.
“Right now, young people under 30 are devastated by the sector’s deafening silence,” says Paul Nazareth, the vice-president of education and development at the Canadian Association of Gift Planners. “A lot of young people are moving to the edges of the sector, or maybe even right out of it.”
It’s really hard to have nuanced conversations. Everything in the world is so complex.Daimen Hardie, Community Forests International
Daimen Hardie, co-founder and executive director of Community Forests International, based in Atlantic Canada, is an advocate for more discursive dialogue within organizations – and society. “It’s really hard to have nuanced conversations. Everything in the world is so complex,” he says. But, he adds, some current polarized and difficult conversations “don’t seem to allow for that complexity.” He points to lessons learned from the Difficult Conversations Lab, which suggest that the more complexity a person experiences in their life, the more tolerant they tend to be. The researcher behind the lab “recommends that people try to actively engage with one another more, especially with people of other opinions, backgrounds, cultures and horizons.”
Saltzman believes it’s important to seize moments like the current one to make changes for the better. “However painful and fractured it is,” she notes, “it’s also an opportunity to reassess.”
Wellness for staff and leaders
Addressing ‘unbelievable’ staff burnout
Difficult times are felt across the globe, especially as tragedies and conflicts are increasingly broadcast for everyone on social media, and organizations need to be “creating workplaces where we recognize that people’s productivity might be affected by injustices going on – even if they’re injustices going on on the other side of the world. It can deeply affect people’s emotions, minds, and ability to do their work,” Glass says. “I think we need to be very caring, and I think people become more productive when those injustices are acknowledged.”
I realized how much I’ve subsidized charities with my health. I cannot believe how many people I’m seeing really start to fold.Paul Nazareth, Canadian Association of Gift Planners
Nazareth is open about his own experiences with burnout. “I realized how much I’ve subsidized charities with my health,” he says. “The community is going through an unbelievable burnout to the levels of which is actually hard to even fathom,” he says. “I cannot believe how many people I’m seeing really start to fold.”
Aline Nizigama, CEO of YWCA Canada, the country’s oldest and largest women’s social service organization, has two young children and is a caregiver for her aging mother who lives with her. She spends a lot of time thinking about how to improve the workplace. “How do we make it easier to participate without feeling like you’re sacrificing an aspect of yourself?”
“In the sector, it often feels like people are leading from that trauma space. So being in a place where you yourself are healing and can find ways to cultivate that trust piece that we need, especially when you are working in very tough issues, like violence or homelessness,” she says. “My dream is to lead from a place of example and to use that to advocate for others.”
Focusing on wellness to help with recruitment – and retention
Attracting and retaining staff has long been a concern in the sector, for many reasons.
“Given the inability of most sector organizations to compete directly on compensation – to not offer, you know, stocks or company cars or whatever it might be – we need to look at the suite of offerings as an employer,” says Bruce MacDonald, president and CEO of Imagine Canada.
A 2023 survey from LinkedIn found that 87% of younger workers would be prepared to leave their jobs as a result of an organization’s values, suggesting an opportunity for the non-profit sector in an era of labour shortages.
Given the inability of most sector organizations to compete directly on compensation, we need to look at the suite of offerings as an employer.Bruce MacDonald, Imagine Canada
Employees may increasingly seek out workplaces that offer hybrid work, four-day workweeks, professional development, smaller teams, menstrual or menopause leave, wellness or personal leave (in place of traditional sick leave), and so on. “If these are packaged intentionally, I think we have the ability to compete for talent,” says MacDonald, whose organization recently began four-day workweeks.
Rochette is also thinking a lot about team-building and wellness. So when a local Indigenous organization offered yoga classes nearby, she and her Anishnawbe Health Foundation team joined in after a meeting. “It was fun,” she says. “We spent that hour together intentionally working on the fact that we care about wellness, and we’re invested in each other as well, in what we do as an organization.”
People really want to continue to have a good work–life balance. And if you’re not flexible as an employer, you’re going to lose candidates.Audrey Rochette, Anishnawbe Health Foundation
“Being intentional for employers on wellness initiatives is really important,” she says – for team well-being but also for recruitment. “Doing a slew of interviews over the last couple of months, the candidates I’m not able to woo with compensation [might be more interested in] the flexibility, a hybrid location, or having wellness initiatives at work – and personal development, professional development,” she says. “People really want to continue to have a good work–life balance. And if you’re not flexible as an employer, you’re going to lose candidates.”
Thinking about pay fairness in many different lights
Cathy Taylor, executive director of the Ontario Nonprofit Network, is a big proponent of healthy workplaces, but she acknowledges that the non-profit sector could lose its attractiveness if it relies on values alone – especially as corporate jobs increasingly position themselves as values-aligned. “We can’t rely on our values and the social impact alone; we really have to offer competitive workplaces,” she says. “Decent work encompasses a whole bunch of things. Money is a big part of it, but it’s not the only piece.”
We’re still waiting to have that salary-equity discussion that the sector needs, knowing that it’s disproportionately made up of women and gender-diverse folks.Aline Nizigama, YWCA Canada
“We’re still waiting to have that salary-equity discussion that the sector needs, knowing that the sector is disproportionately made up of women and gender-diverse folks,” Nizigama says. She notes that many sector employees also carry the burden of child-rearing and other caregiving at home.
Sanderson is also concerned about the burdens carried by low-paid staff. “We’re trying to advocate for higher wages” at YKWS, she says. “We just don’t have enough funds to cover all of it . . . We get funding for five staff, when in reality we need 10.”
Saltzman points to another area of pay inequity in the sector: how artists are compensated, noting it can be “completely out of whack with how administrators are renumerated.” She asks, “What’s happening to our overall cultural ecosystem when we don’t value and support our own creative people?”
Recognizing the unique pressures put on sector leaders – especially women, gender-diverse people, and racialized people
Given the challenges, it’s obvious that leadership is no walk in the park. “We know a lot of racialized leaders hesitate to bring their leadership style to the institutional culture they have to work within,” says Barhet Woldemariam, the executive director at the Centre for Race and Culture. “What kind of support – what infrastructure – can we build up, coming from our own experiences doing this, to support each other and other folks who might be thinking about trying to navigate these roles?” she asks.
We know a lot of racialized leaders hesitate to bring their leadership style to the institutional culture they have to work within.Barhet Woldemariam, Centre for Race and Culture
Woldemariam is part of an informal group of racialized executive directors in Edmonton who have recently begun to get together semi-regularly to talk through issues, brainstorm ideas, and workshop solutions. The result, she says, is “very tangible support, along with creative development of new solutions and new ways of approaching leadership.”
“It becomes challenging to navigate the day-to-day demands of the work while still envisioning and working toward transformative new ways of doing this work,” she says.
I’m burned out. I’m trying to juggle everything, and it’s not sustainable.Renee Sanderson
Sanderson also acknowledges the immense personal toll the job can take, noting that the recent death of a client in the frigid temperatures was devastating to her. “I was wondering, like, ‘Why is this hitting me so hard?’ This was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I’m burned out. I’m trying to juggle everything, and it’s not sustainable.” But she maintains hope that something good will come of the increased attention on the intense need the community is facing. And, she says, it’s important to “show up for yourself how you would show up for other people. I can’t help anyone else until I’m feeling better.”
Gathering federal data on governance
Senator Ratna Omidvar is clear about her goals before she retires this year: “get my legislative proposal on governance and governance equity in the sector passed.”
Omidvar is asking the Canada Revenue Agency to include questions about board diversity on tax forms – specifically the T3010 and T1044. It’s a proposal she launched in 2022. “It will for the first time provide data about who governs charities and foundations,” she says. “We know that it is boards of directors who decide how money is spent, how people are treated, who is employed, et cetera.”
Leadership needs to be renewed. It needs to be relevant. It needs to reflect the reality of the people it serves.Senator Ratna Omidvar
One single additional question in the annual tax slips, she says, and the non-profit world would have access to aggregate data by which to hold itself accountable. “This is a form of governance equity,” she says. “If governance and leadership are robust, if they are sound, then organizations can weather the storm. And there are many storms brewing . . . Leadership needs to be renewed. It needs to be relevant. It needs to reflect the reality of the people it serves.”
Jean-Marc Mangin, the president and CEO of Philanthropic Foundations Canada, is hopeful the proposal will move forward. “We’ll have a better sense if the sector is reflecting the actual diversity of Canada” if it’s implemented, he says.
Moving to a ‘post-EDI’ conversation
The Equitable Recovery Collective released its equity benchmarking report in July. “While most nonprofit leaders support equity, diversity and inclusion, far fewer pursue it with deep intentionality,” the report found, adding that “organizations led by Black and Indigenous people and those from other underrepresented communities do more to advance EDI, even though they serve some of the highest-need communities, experience increased expectations, and face greater barriers.”
Saltzman sees these trends play out across the sector. “I have real questions around diversifying staff when you don’t have the ability to hold space well,” she says. The fallout from “performative moves that are meant to look politically correct but don’t actually have the infrastructure to support racialized and marginalized hires,” she says, is huge. “If the organization isn’t ready for the diverse hires they’re bringing in, what are we setting people up for? Often we’re setting people up for burnout and exiting.”
If the organization isn’t ready for the diverse hires they’re bringing in, what are we setting people up for?Devyani Saltzman
“We face a kind of post-EDI conversation about what does true equity look like – as opposed to you just making it a course within your staffing group,” Saltzman says.
MacDonald has a similar call for organizations. He says that Imagine Canada wants organizations “to ask themselves questions about how they’re doing with a true inclusion, moving beyond surface-level work and asking, How are our organizations truly evolving and changing? I don’t see momentum easing up on that.”
Hiring and mentoring Indigenous people
Kelly Lendsay, an Indigenous leader of Cree and Métis ancestry, is president and CEO of Indigenous Works, an Indigenous-led, not-for-profit organization advancing Indigenous employment and inclusion. He points to the National Indigenous Economic Strategy and its 107 calls to prosperity as crucial for leaders in the sector to review as a necessary step toward economic reconciliation – a term dubbed by some to be a new “buzzword.” Though taking action on reconciliation has been identified as a trend by sector leaders several years in a row, Lendsay says economic reconciliation is newly front and centre this year.
Lendsay points to the importance of moving from conversations to action. “What we’re calling for through a reconcili-action strategy is for people to now get creative, get to know each other, build social capital, build opportunity, and really move beyond what I call the romantic and the cosmetic side,” he says. “Doing events is important – National Indigenous Peoples Day on June 21, having a bannock day; having cultural events is part of a strategy. But it does not end there.”
We don’t need projects that are focused on how we feel about reconciliation. We need meaningful things that move economic reconciliation forward.Kelly Lendsay, Indigenous Works
For Lendsay, it’s time to move toward more tangible actions: whether that’s hiring Indigenous people, providing mentorships to help them build their careers, helping entrepreneurs, or buying products from Indigenous entrepreneurs. “We really don’t need projects that are focused on how we feel about reconciliation,” he says. “We need meaningful things that move economic reconciliation forward.”
“The golden opportunity going into 2024 is we want all organizations, including organizations in the philanthropic sector, to read the National Indigenous Economic Strategy and identify where can we align with the calls to prosperity,” he says. “Some of the more serious foundations . . . [are] saying, ‘OK, there’s the Truth and Reconciliation Commission,’ and then they’re going further and deeper. And they’re really, I think, creating bold, new mechanisms.”
Grappling with the rapid rise of generative artificial intelligence
It was only November 2022 when OpenAI launched its first demo of ChatGPT to the public, unleashing a flurry of attention as people interacted with the generative AI tool for the first time. “Technology has this habit of moving faster than we can properly adapt our society and governance and etiquette and habits and everything around it,” says Hardie, of Community Forests International. “This one is just leaping so quickly.”
Today, generative AI is everywhere – though not everyone is prepared to use it. Carleton University’s Charity Insights Canada Project asked charities about artificial intelligence in October. Well over half (63%) of respondents said they were not prepared to use AI to support the work of their organization. Just under three-quarters (72%) thought it would be expensive to implement. Slightly more (78%) thought its use would lead to a loss of personal connections with communities served. More than half thought it would lead to job losses and could perpetuate bias.
But respondents also saw positives: 80% thought it could help with social media posts and emails, and 87% thought it could mean quicker and more accurate data analysis.
MacDonald encourages organizations to have conversations around policies or ethical concerns or how their donor base might react if they receive something generated by AI rather than from a human. Then there are the issues of using AI that might access databases, he adds, pointing to the importance of cybersecurity to ensure that personal donor information or the personal information that service organizations collect is secure. “It’s here now,” he says. “But I think it’s only going to accelerate as it becomes more accessible and more available.”
You’re probably not going to stop AI, so how do we work with it in a constructive way?Daimen Hardie
Hardie is nuanced in his thoughts on the use of AI – yes, there are real causes for concern, he says. But he also wonders about its benefits. “For people who aren’t English-language speaking as their primary language, this can be a really great levelling technology,” he says. “You’re probably not going to stop it, so how do we work with it in a constructive way?” he asks, noting that many applicants in a recent job posting had used generative AI in their applications. He says a colleague helped him frame his thinking on it. “What better way to show that you’re ready for the workforce in 2024 than to show you have some savvy about using generative AI in an appropriate way?”
Navigating a potentially inequitable AI playing field
Though AI can function as a tool to help workflows, adapting to the change can be a challenge for the people who it is intended to help.
“How do we ensure that we are equipped, both from a technology perspective but also from a people perspective?” MacDonald wonders. “How do we hire talent that can help our organizations navigate this new terrain?” He adds, “We’re seeing more and more interest from organizations who are saying, ‘We’ve got to figure out a way to get in the game on this.’ Because it’s happening.”
Many leaders fear that organizations will not have the resources to keep up. “It’s not an easy terrain,” says Glass, noting that “it could cause gaps. Those smaller organizations that have less capacity could be left behind, which happened earlier in the digital revolution towards cloud technology. A lot of organizations were very, very late compared to the private sector, the public sector, and larger non-profits.”
If you can get ChatGPT to write your DEI policy for you, are you actually doing the work?Jessica Bolduc, 4Rs Youth Movement
Omidvar agrees. “Some will be highly sophisticated – they will have the institutional muscle to keep abreast,” she says. “A vast number of charities will not know where to turn.”
Bolduc has similar words of caution. She also wonders if generative AI might further the potential for performative acts of reconciliation or equity work. “If you can get ChatGPT to write your DEI policy for you, are you actually doing the work?”
The affordability crisis
In 2023, inflation continued to dominate the headlines. The ever-increasing numbers are now familiar to many: the consumer price index rose 3.9% on an annual average basis in 2023. And that was following a 40-year-high increase of 6.8% in 2022. The last two years represent the largest increases since 1991, according to Statistics Canada. Things are more expensive: rent, air travel, vehicles, fuel, groceries. This has implications for people across Canada – and for the organizations trying to help them.
There’s a high level of turnover, there’s burnout, there’s mental health issues for staff and volunteers . . . The ability of the sector to do its work is very much stretched.Jean-Marc Mangin, Philanthropic Foundations Canada
“The sector itself is very fragile – the ability to find the resources to do their work, to sustain a workforce, and provide decent work conditions,” Mangin says. “There’s a high level of turnover, there’s burnout, there’s mental health issues for staff and volunteers . . . The ability of the sector to do its work is very much stretched.”
Taylor agrees. “Costs are going up in every way possible,” she says. The Ontario Nonprofit Network, which surveyed Ontario charities and non-profits again in 2023, found that 90% of respondents reported an increase in costs, with half reporting difficulty obtaining government, foundation, or corporate funds and more than a third reporting significant challenges in achieving long-term financial stability. “Organizations are ringing alarm bells about a really dire financial and human resource situation,” Taylor says.
Providing services in a time of intense need
At the same time, “Demand for non-profit services is at an all-time high,” Taylor says. The network’s 2023 survey found that 76% of respondents reported an increase in demand for services. It’s what Nazareth deems “unfathomable” levels of need.
At the Anishnawbe Health Foundation, Rochette points to “staggering statistics” that came out late last year: a November survey from Ipsos found that 20% of Canadians are using charities to meet their basic needs – and seven in 10 of those were accessing charitable services to meet their essential needs for the first time. More than half of them cited increased costs as the motivating factor. “Seeing these statistics – you know that there’s been this rise, especially because of the rising cost of living. The cost of food is astronomical, and I think everyone feels it,” she says.
The crisis that the sector is currently facing can’t be overcome through just resiliency and creativity.Cathy Taylor, Ontario Nonprofit Network
The combination of increased costs, decreased revenue, and increased services means something has to give for many organizations. “Programs are being cut or cancelled where they either don’t have the staff or they don’t have the resources,” Taylor says, noting that other organizations are closing entirely. More than half of Ontario survey respondents reported knowing of an organization in their sector that had closed in the past year.
“The crisis that the sector is currently facing can’t be overcome through just resiliency and creativity,” Taylor says. “So we really need governments and corporations and others to support the sector now more than ever.” She wonders what will happen this year, as the sector faces a suite of challenges. “It’s not looking good unless there are supports and changes that take place.”
Seeking to provide culturally appropriate aid as demand grows
As organizations work to provide the necessities for struggling Canadians, there is also growing talk about ensuring the appropriateness of the aid. “We are seeing demand in the sector for basics like food security,” says Eva Friesen, president and CEO of the Calgary Foundation. “There was a lot of that during the pandemic, but it has not waned.”
We are seeing demand in the sector for basics like food security. There was a lot of that during the pandemic, but it has not waned.Eva Friesen, Calgary Foundation
“New in that is the idea of culturally appropriate food,” she says, noting that a standardized food hamper isn’t always appropriate for everyone who’s receiving it. She sees more groups seeking to distribute grocery gift cards instead of hampers, which she says allows families to go shopping as usual, which might feel more dignified for some.
But the idea of providing culturally appropriate assistance to people in need doesn’t stop with food, she adds. She points to mental health support as another area that is increasingly recognizing the importance of cultural sensitivity. “The most common way of providing mental health services is not always the best way,” she says. “There’s a lot of cultural stigma on mental health, which can cause people from some cultures not to seek services from the standard mental health providers.”
Advocating for core funding – and contingency funding
As organizations grapple with increased costs, they are still advocating for granting that recognizes the cost of core operations. Many funders are still reluctant to fund what Imagine Canada’s MacDonald dubs the “dreaded cost of the administration bucket.” He says that “funding the core operations of organizations creates better program outcomes, better services for communities.” It’s a sentiment echoed by many.
People have been asking for core funding for decades. It’s an unfortunate accepted part of being in the non-profit sector.Jessica Bolduc
“People have been asking for core funding for decades,” Bolduc says. “It’s an unfortunate accepted part of being in the non-profit sector. Hopefully in 2024 there’s a continued effort to just not accept the status quo anymore.”
Bolduc points to a recent donation 4Rs received. The donors said, “We trust you. You do good work,” and left the discretion up to the organization. “It’s been my nest egg, my emergency fund,” she says, noting it didn’t come with a timeline. “It really enabled us to act with resources when we’re actually having to respond to crises.” She suggests that providing organizations with a kind of contingency grant, specifically for responding to community needs in times of crisis – especially as wildfires, droughts, and other climate-related emergencies affect organizations’ ability to operate – could be extremely helpful.
Shifting from a sole focus on fundraising to a focus on generosity
Nazareth is thinking about reimagining charity in 2024. “The whole social contract is starting to unravel,” he says. Volunteerism is down – Statistics Canada data from November 2022 found that 65% of organizations reported a shortage. Charitable giving has “reached a historic low,” with data from Carleton finding more than a third of organizations reporting a decline in donor levels.
When philanthropy is focused on people’s humanity – serving, building things – that’s when it’s beautiful.Paul Nazareth
Part of the issue, Nazareth says, is the approach. “Creativity and generosity is alive and well, but there’s a disconnect between fundraising, philanthropy, and generosity,” he says. “When philanthropy gets all highfalutin, it’s so easy to lose your connection to what this is all about.” Nazareth is inspired by grassroots efforts across the country to build and improve community. And organizations that have traditionally over-relied on traditional fundraising or philanthropy may need to rethink their relationships with Canadians in the future, he says. Success, he adds, will come to “organizations who truly embrace the concept of being community-centric [and] truly shifted to that model of generosity rather than fundraising.”
“When it’s focused on people’s humanity – serving, building things – that’s when it’s beautiful,” he says.
Trust and collaboration
Reimagining grantmaking – with an emphasis on trust
For many leaders in the sector, the time has come to reimagine the top-down nature of grantmaking, and the assumptions that come with it. “We have a mainstream culture that has an idea about what accountability and objectivity means,” Glass says. “What we’re experimenting with now is ‘Could organizations that apply for the funding also be considered experts with knowledge to share and participate in the selection process?’”
In 2024, she says, the sector is going to see lessons stemming from early experiments with new approaches in participatory grantmaking. “People who are really close to a problem know a lot about it” and can “contribute their knowledge and use that power for the benefit of the collective decision-making.”
If you take care of families, those families will take care of community.Jessica Bolduc
Bolduc points to the idea that funding important work doesn’t always mean giving money to an organization – something Indigenous Climate Action, an Indigenous-led organization working on climate solutions, is well aware of. The organization’s Indigenous Youth Wellness Honorarium program funds young Indigenous front-line activists and climate-justice organizers. The honorarium seeks to remove the “financial and mental health barriers [that] often impact Indigenous Peoples when engaging in climate justice work . . . when upholding our sacred responsibilities.”
In the United States, NDN Collective, an Indigenous-led organization dedicated to building Indigenous power, hosts a Collective Abundance Fund. Through it, direct funding is available to Indigenous individuals and families in Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota. The organization provides flexible grants of $25,000 or $50,000 with the goal “to invest in and support their self-determined wealth-building activities.” These types of grants, Bolduc says, are rooted in Indigenous philosophy. “If you take care of families, those families will take care of community,” she says.
Embracing new guidelines on granting to non-qualified donees
In late December, the federal government announced its long-awaited guidance on making grants to non-qualified donees. The Income Tax Act was amended in 2022 to pave the way for registered charities to work with non-qualified donees, meaning grants can now be awarded to groups doing front-line work regardless of their charitable status.
“This is quite significant in terms of opening a new pathway for different kinds of relationships,” says Mangin. He says that Philanthropic Foundations Canada is “hopeful that over time it will lead to more granting to non-qualified donees often led by people of colour and Indigenous Peoples and that they’ll be able to receive more support.”
I have believed all along that the old laws were unintentionally colonial and unintentionally an expression of systemic discrimination against those individuals served by organizations that do not have charitable status.Ratna Omidvar
Omidvar is also hopeful and sees a pressing need for the changes. “Many organizations do not take the leap to becoming charities for good reason,” she says. “I have believed very firmly all along that the old laws were unintentionally colonial and unintentionally an expression of systemic discrimination against those individuals who are served by organizations that do not have charitable status. So the frailest and weakest in our community – the Indigenous, the racially marginalized.”
The guidance suggests an aim to “adopt a reasonable, flexible, and proportionate approach to grant documentation,” a positive sign for those looking to minimize unnecessary bureaucracy in grantmaking. “You don’t have to follow a formula with specific formats of reporting,” Mangin says. “That flexibility is very much welcome.”
Moving toward more trust – in grants, but also in workplaces
For YWCA Canada’s Nizigama, advocating for extending trust doesn’t stop with granting relationships. It needs to happen internally, too. Whether it’s management, boards, leadership, or staff, she wants to see an increasingly trust-based approach in sector workplaces. “So much of the societal ills fall onto us, and we carry the weight of that,” she says. Trust, she says, can help lift people up.
“How do we pull back from micromanaging people who know exactly what they need to be doing – once they understand their mission, and their role, and their tasking in an organization?” she asks. “To me, it’s tied to co-creating everything,” she says. “I’m not going to come and preach at people what to do. I have a vision, I have ideas that come from a particular experience or a particular upbringing, or a particular education. But I trust that you also bring that same thing, and what can we build together?”
Working together in a time of climate crisis
Last year was the warmest year on record. Antarctic sea ice coverage dropped to a record low. Canada had its worst wildfire season on record, with more than seven times the annual average area burning. “Climate change and the impact of climate crises on our communities will impact all organizations in our sector,” Taylor says. “We’re starting to see organizations think, ‘OK, what is my role in climate change and climate transition?’”
Climate change and the impact of climate crises on our communities will impact all organizations in our sector.Cathy Taylor
In response to that question, the Ontario Nonprofit Network is partnering with other organizations to pilot a series of workshops for sector leaders – not those specifically working in the environment space – exploring “why and how all purpose-driven work should include climate action, and how it can further the impact of your organization.” The workshops are “for non-profit leaders who are really interested in supporting their organizations to tackle climate change,” Taylor says, noting that leaders come from a range of organizations, from arts, to sports, to social services, and so on. For many, a global challenge like climate change is a strong call to truly collaborate and share ideas.
Collaborating to create alignment on shared goals and system change
As Woldemariam looks ahead, she’s thinking about how the Centre for Race and Culture (CFRAC) can work with other organizations to ensure that community needs are being met.
CFRAC, which delivers customized trainings, develops workshops, and conducts research on anti-racism in Alberta, recognizes that it needs allies to make big change. “So we’re inviting folks who are also doing anti-racism work in the city to come together to try to do some of the systems thinking around our anti-racism efforts in Edmonton,” Woldemariam explains. For three days in March, CFRAC will host a gathering of people working in the space to start a conversation.
Without connecting with other folks in the space and connecting with community, we won’t know where we can have some impact in alignment with the collective effort.Barhet Woldemariam
“There are many of us doing this work in Edmonton – and we may be pulling on different levers without knowing if we’re aligning our levers,” she says. “We recognize that without connecting with other folks in the space and connecting with community, we won’t know where we can have some impact in alignment with the collective effort,” she says. “There’s a lot of work that needs to be done in that collective system space for us to be able to focus our individual efforts.”
Systems-change thinking means looking at the root causes of problems, rather than the symptoms. “A definite way to deepen impact is to address the systems that hold the problem in place,” Friesen says. “So how can we do that effectively and remain apolitical? That’s the million-dollar question.”
Forming networks to share knowledge among organizations
Changing the system is obviously not easy. “The answer will come through coalitions,” Glass says. She points to a new national initiative called the Affordability Action Council, which is focused on “all-in” policy solutions for Canada’s poverty and climate crises, as an example.
The soon-to-be created Association of Grantmakers in Alberta is also seeking to prevent organizations from working in silos. The goal is to launch in 2024 with a mandate to share learning, build skills, and network – all to improve the effectiveness of grantmaking and the experience of the charitable organizations that seek grants.
Though the association will be open to all grantmakers in the province, it was formed in response to loneliness, says Friesen, who was part of early conversations. “When COVID hit in 2020 and we all found ourselves leading organizations from home offices, a group of CEOs of grantmaking organizations in the province came together over Zoom, weekly, informally, to share thoughts, concerns, ideas, and seek support from peers in what had become a very lonely world,” she says. The group of about 15 included leaders from some private and community foundations, the United Way, and government funding programs. “Grantmaking was the one thing we all had in common,” Friesen says. But, she adds, “the conversations built relationships.”
“Needs we saw in the community were shared. Collaborative funding began to happen. If a need didn’t fit the mandate of one funder, it was picked up by another whose mandate aligned better,” she says. “It was magical.”
Correction, February 8: The second paragraph of this piece was altered to clarify that the Yellowknife Women’s Society hosts numerous programs for vulnerable adults – not just women.