Is “it could be worse” good enough?

I always get a weird feeling walking into the Alberta Legislature. I love that building. Over 100 years of history. Everything about it screams government and, for someone with a passion for history and politics, its symmetrical floor plan, granite, sandstone, marble, and mahogany are signs that our province was punching above its weight to build such a building a century ago. I’m sure critics then looked at it and wondered why we built such a building; after all it cost over $2 million (in 1906).

This isn’t about the building itself, though, this is about what it represents. The people that built the building knew it would last. The expense seemed worth it. To me, the fact that I get blown away by this building so long after those that built it have passed, is an incredible feat.

What does this have to do with the budget? Well, it has everything to do with it. I walked into the same building that I love last Thursday and I wasn’t sure how to feel. I was walking into the embargoed budget briefing that included many people that I had only ever seen on TV before: economists, leaders and influential people from across Alberta. Volunteer Alberta was fortunate to have been invited; we don’t always get these invitations. But, on this day I wasn’t struck by the beauty of the mahogany doors, I was worried. We had heard rumours about what this budget could mean for the nonprofit sector and I was not too excited.

Once the budget debrief started I flipped through the pages and, unfortunately, the rumours were true. The big standouts, as presented in our Budget Analysis were:

  • The $7 million for the Summer Temporary Employment Program (STEP) was cut.
  • The $15.5 million for the Community Spirit Program was cut
  • The Other Initiatives Program, which is a flexible funding source for nonprofits to access, was reduced by $1.4 million
  • Many of the other grants remained flat, which due to annual cost increases represents a cut.

Those are major cuts, and we aren’t yet sure of the extent of their impact. I kept telling myself, “it could be worse”. However, in the wake of the launch of Alberta’s Social Policy Framework, should we settle for “it could be worse”?

VA’s Ellie McFarlane wrote a great blog post on the upsides and downsides of the Social Policy Framework in which she points out that we have to have a serious discussion as to how we pay for these things.

The government has told us they intend to work with the nonprofit sector to discuss potential solutions to these problems. Having said that, Albertans need to decide if our nonprofit sector ought to be funded through tax dollars, private donations, user fees, or, more realistically, an all-of-the-above approach.

With Alberta’s population growing by the size of Red Deer every year, we will face greater demands for the broad spectrum of programs and services provided by the nonprofit sector. To borrow an analogy from an earlier blog post of mine called Becoming the Car:

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)

We need to make sure the parts of the car are in good working order not just for now, but because that decision about closing a summer program at your local library could be the difference of whether or not a kid ends up going to college.

It sounds like a stretch, but I assure you it’s not. STEP has been a successful program since the 1970s and it will be a challenge to overcome its loss.

Luckily, the people that work in the nonprofit sector are resilient. They are the kinds of people that view challenges as opportunities and while such a budget is a setback, it’s by no means a nail in the coffin.

We have enjoyed a positive working relationship with the Government of Alberta and we will continue to work with them as the voice of the nonprofit/voluntary sector in Alberta. These are tough times and I can’t imagine anyone, MLAs included, truly welcomed these cuts. But they have a job to do too.

The decisions we make today affect people for generations. I hope as we move forward we work together to ensure that the Alberta we shape with our decisions is as awe inspiring as the Legislature Building is to me, 100 years from now.

I welcome your stories about how the loss of STEP, Community Spirit, and other budget choices will impact your organization.


Steven Kwasny, Stakeholder Relations Coordinator