In Pursuit of Change

Many, if not most, of us who have come to work and volunteer in the nonprofit sector have been drawn in because we want to contribute to a more just and compassionate world. We know that change is required and not just incremental change. Our language is evolving – instructing us to stop pursuing partial solutions and to move on to transformative change. The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, for example, call for us to work together to “end poverty in all its forms everywhere” by 2030. However, I wonder if the transformative work required is constrained by structures inherent within the nonprofit sector.

There are over 170,000 nonprofit organizations across our country oriented towards improving conditions related to a particular social, ecological or cultural issue. Many of these organizations possess significant knowledge and experience related to the issue in question, access to financial resources and organizational infrastructure. However, we are making only incremental progress towards solutions. Why is this?

While there exist notable exceptions, a potentially transformative idea within a charitable organization may bump up against aversion to risk (the double-edged sword of fiduciary duty), may be deemed a poor fit for existing funders, or may be questioned as to its ability to meet amorphous standards of "best practice." Further, due to many factors, not the least of which relate to the requirements of the Canada Revenue Agency, we find ourselves focused not on solving the issue that led to the formation of this charity, but on perpetually raising funds to sustain the organization.

I hear you – a healthy balance sheet can provide a springboard for pursuing goals for meaningful change. But does our focus on building reserves come at the expense of social impact? What would it look like if we were able to reorient and release even just a small portion of the deep knowledge and experience that exists within each of our organizations and combine it thoughtfully and intentionally with that of others?

In times of economic uncertainty, our natural propensity is to hunker down and protect what is ours. However, there are organizations – including several here in Calgary – that are resisting this tendency and are instead opening up and reaching outwards. I’m not talking about striking more committees where we discuss the fabulous things we could do together and then go back to our respective organizations to get back to our real jobs. What I am describing is a deep understanding and commitment from each organization’s board, management team and funders to creating meaningful change in partnership with others from outside its borders.  

Anyone who has been involved in a change initiative of any kind knows the importance of clearing the pathway of obstacles. The type of complex change initiatives those in the nonprofit sector are taking on – from food security to access to clean drinking water –already face many obstacles. It thus seems reasonable that our own boards, management teams and funders not present additional barriers, and instead help to clear pathways so that we can more easily access and leverage the knowledge and experience that lies beyond our organizational boundaries. Our desire to stop working in silos has to be supported by appropriate structural changes both within and outside our organizations.

It will take time to shift our organizational and, indeed, our sectoral culture to one that catalyzes and supports a new way of working. Yet our intentions are good. After all, we’re all here to change the world.

Jill Andres is principal of Creating Value Inc., a consultancy that coaches clients on social change. She is also Changemaker in Residence: Social Enterprise and Innovation with the Institute for Community Prosperity at Mount Royal University and board chair for REAP Calgary.