Becoming the Car: The Nonprofit Sector is More Than It Used To Be

Last Saturday I attended the Alberta Economic Summit hosted by Premier Redford. I, along with 299 other people far smarter than myself, gathered in a room to hear panels of experts tell us about the economic challenges we face in Alberta, and what can be done to address them. Calgary Chamber of Commerce CEO Adam Legge wrote a great synopsis of what was covered. I won’t discuss the merits of transcontinental pipelines or different tax structures, though those conversations are important; instead I want to focus on one sentence from summit panelist Liz O’Neil, the Executive Director of Big Brothers Big Sisters Edmonton. She said, “Nonprofits aren’t what they used to be, and they aren’t sure what they are now.”

To provide a little context, the panel was discussing what the spending priorities for the Government of Alberta should be, and Liz O’Neil was speaking from the perspective of the nonprofit/voluntary sector. She referenced several statistics that shocked many in the audience. In Alberta alone:

  • We have 19,000 nonprofits
  • Over 176,000 people are employed in the nonprofit sector
  • There are approximately 2.5 million volunteers
  • Nonprofits and charities have an annual economic impact of over $10 billion.

To put those points in perspective, according to Alberta Enterprise in 2011 the agricultural sector employes 51,000 people and 151,000 Albertans are employed in the mining and oil and gas extraction industry. While the retail and construction industries employ slightly more people than the nonprofit/voluntary sector, when you factor in the massive amount of volunteers in Alberta, no single industry has a greater impact on the day-to-day lives of Albertans.

I understand there is a trickle-down effect from oil and gas, agriculture, and whatever else; and the money they pay their employees runs our economic engine and thereby funds our nonprofit sector. However, like a car, it takes more than an engine to do anything.

The nonprofit/voluntary sector started out as the economic air bag in the car; ready to help if your situation turned so dire that it was the only thing that could help. Now, it has grown to be the economic seatbelt and review mirror (consumer and government watchdog groups), gas pedal (chambers of commerce encouraging more business), headlights (think tanks and advocacy groups showing the road ahead), shocks and tires (service organizations making sure we all enjoy a smooth ride) and even the in-car DVD system (like recreation and arts organizations so we can all have a little fun along the way).

But, we forget that even those of us in the nonprofit/voluntary sector fall victim to second-classing ourselves to the private or public sectors.

In a recent report by the Government of Canada’s finance committee, they acknowledge, “Canadians rely on charities to deliver services previously delivered largely by the various levels of government.”

When the perpetual call to control government spending is heard, government responsibilities get downloaded to the nonprofit/voluntary sector, often without the necessary level of funding. We all rely on it every day, and Albertans are extremely generous with donations, however, we find it still isn’t enough. In many people’s minds, our system is still an airbag, even though it has become a car. The nonprofit/voluntary sector, along with its partners in business and government, need to take a serious look at how the sector is supported and developed to ensure we can continue to do the things that Albertans have come to rely on to improve upon our quality of life.


Steven Kwasny

Stakeholder Relations Coordinator