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Can nonprofits influence economic development?

Edmonton_Skyline06-MThe other day on my way into work I stopped at a new coffee shop here in Edmonton. Besides the good quality coffee and tasty breakfast sandwich, the unique location of Burrow Central Station is what sets this cafe apart. It is the first business of its kind in Edmonton to be located underground, connected to Edmonton’s Light Rail Transit system (LRT). I think it represents a great shift for the city and demonstrates the evolution occurring in this urban space to make it more liveable. As I walked away sipping on a fresh poured cup I began to think about what some of the contributing factors might be that allowed for this business to open?

Of course, there are the obvious contributing factors; economic, entrepreneurial, political, and social. It is within each of these factors that I see nonprofit sector activities contributing to the opening of Burrow. Nonprofit economic development organizations and downtown community leagues have continually advocated that city administration should be open to possibilities and support opportunities that lead to a more vibrant downtown. This conversation influenced the last municipal election and many candidates included in their platforms ideas for creating a more livable city. Additionally, the owner of Burrow has acknowledged that LRT ridership levels were previously not high enough to make a business like this viable. Many nonprofit organizations have been at the forefront of advocating that increased access to public transportation, and that increased use will result in reduced environmental impacts, better use of resources, and increases in economic opportunities. Edmontonians are now choosing to take the train more and this is, at least partially, a result of the efforts of these nonprofits. Ridership on the LRT is now around 20,000 people per day, which makes businesses in LRT stations a growing possibility.

Burrow is also connected to arts and culture through a creative idea to put poems and short stories on the coffee cup sleeves from the Edmonton Public Library, another nonprofit. Every patron at Burrow takes with them a connection to the arts and culture talent in the community and helps develop a sense among the patrons that they are living in a dynamic and vibrant community.

When we say that the nonprofit sector is at the centre of community we often site the frontline services provided and tend to forget that the nonprofit sector also exerts significant influence in shaping community. Through advocating for causes and working to meet missions, nonprofit organizations are continually working to improve our communities. The more tangible outcomes of their work may be the clients served and services provided, but the complex outcomes are often expressed through the changes in behaviours and development of new opportunities. Although it is appropriate to applaud new business and entrepreneurs for their ingenuity, we should spend time to look at how different sectors, including the nonprofit sector, operate together and generate new potential. The Burrow Central Station coffee shop represents these cross-sectoral relationships and helps bring to light the nonprofit sectors subtle, steady impact.

Annand Ollivierre, Program Manager

The New R&D Model: Rip-off & Duplicate

teslaThere has been a recent development in the world of electric cars that’s got me thinking about strengths and opportunities in the nonprofit/voluntary sector (NPVS). On June 12, 2014 Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla, announced that the company “will not initiate patent lawsuits against anyone who, in good faith, wants to use our technology.”[i] Essentially Tesla released their patents for others to use, for me the questions are why and what is the broader lesson for us in the NPVS? One of the reasons cited as to why Musk chose to do this is that, due to the increased pace of technological innovation, there is a new challenge for innovators where the highest hurdle innovative organizations often face is no longer the theft of their ideas, but rather the development of new markets for those ideas to flourish[ii]. Tesla seems to be indicating that in order to move to electric car based transportation, we need to create the infrastructure and technology to support that market. In other words, Musk is basically saying is “the old system isn’t working, creating a new way of life is a big challenge, too big for one company/person to solve so let’s work together to co-create a better future.”  For me it is from this mindset that I see the connection to the NPVS and why I believe the sector is increasingly well positioned to be a strong voice and essential contributor in the emerging economy.

It seems to me that the NPVS is increasingly stating that the “challenge is bigger than me” (whatever that “challenge” may be) and is continually moving to a place where co-owning and sharing the burden of the challenge is the norm. There is the growing realisation that the challenges our communities face and the resources to sustain the fundamental structures of a resilient society are bigger than one organization, one program, one person, one sector. In fact with the NPVS, everywhere I turn collaboration is the word/approach mentioned as the way forward. We are all increasing familiar and participate in collective impact initiatives, social labs, cross-sector collaborations and partnerships, to mention a few. Although the constant barrage of these collaborative opportunities could make us weary and/or sceptical, there is growing evidence demonstrating that the NPVS is achieving measurable impact through collaboration.[iii] It is this collaborative mindset, the sharing of ideas/approaches, the scaling out and up of social innovation, which is the emerging economic model in the 21st century.  The sharing/collaborative economy is growing and turning the “traditional” economic and social systems on their heads in small but increasing pockets of our society.[iv]

I see Tesla and Elon Musk’s releasing of patents as a further indication that the collaborative/sharing economy has significant momentum. Now is the time for the sharing of ideas across and within sectors and the co-ownership and co-creation of innovative solutions (social and technological) for addressing large systemic challenges. The NPVS is an early adopter of this emerging model as we have an intrinsic understanding that the most effective approaches need to be shared, reused, and improved to have the most transformative impact. Let’s continue to share with each other and further overcome our need to act in a proprietary manner especially when we know that challenges we are trying to solve require constant innovation and the efforts of many.

Please Sir, May I Have Some Statistics?

statisticsI subscribe to The Daily from Statistics Canada and I think you should too! For those wondering what I am talking about, everyday, StatsCan releases a list of up-to-date statistics and data related to a wide range of sectors, as well as economic and social indicators that reflect and affect our lives.  As an employee in the nonprofit/voluntary sector (NPVS) within a capacity/backbone organization, I am most interested in information related to this sector. What I find is that the existing statistics on the NPVS are not widely available and the nonprofit sector is often a lens that is not used when reporting statistics.

Why do I care? Simply put, it is about context and opportunity. I am often asked fairly basic contextual questions that can be more difficult to answer than they should be. Questions like: how many Alberta nonprofits are there? What is the economic impact of the sector in Alberta? How many employees? What are the rates of volunteerism? This information is often inadequately collected, what is available is often outdated, not well reported and not regionally specific (Alberta vs Canada). Without consistent and reliable contextual information, the NPVS finds itself saying different things (is it 19,000 nonprofits or 23,000?) and struggling with the perennial issue of demonstrating the scope and size of the sector. Additionally, it is not just about trends and size of the sector, but about having accessible statistics to help identify opportunities and challenges. Statistics are what other sectors use to spot future challenges and proactively shift to mitigate or capitalize on them. By paying attention to shifts in labour market attitudes, economic indicators, increases or decreases in certain social indicators, among other information, the NPVS will be better positioned to be an integrated partner in designing our future communities and economies.

The solutions as I see them are at least two-fold. First, better data collection on a reasonably frequent basis is required. For example, in a world where data is collected constantly, it is surprising to me that basic information on the economic impact of the sector is not easy to find. I recognize this is easier said than done; however, if the system to collect this type of data is not in place – let’s work together to develop it. The second solution is openness. I know a number of institutions collect information on the NPVS. Governments collect nonprofit and charity registration information, academia is always conducting research and studies, and banks and other large private sector organizations collect information on NPVS as well. The thing about all the information collected is that it is our information; it is about us as a sector: who we are, what we do, and how we do it. But it seems like the nonprofit/voluntary sector is the last to find out what others know. A greater commitment by these large organizations to making the information they collect available and open for the NPVS to look at and analyze would go a long way in addressing the information deficit.

In recognizing the data challenges the NPVS faces, some sector organizations have taken it upon themselves to fill the void. There is great research and information available through CCVO, Imagine Canada, Volunteer Canada and our own CSGVP analysis, please use it. Also, I would encourage all of us to assist in the efforts of these organizations and commit to participating in surveys and interviews when asked so as to help paint the picture of our sector. In our current rush to demonstrate impact, let’s not forget that numbers combined with stories have the most influence. Let’s make sure we use statistics that are available and consistently advocate for more information to be collected and shared with us.

Annand Ollivierre, Program Manager

Sometimes We Can Move the Needle – preliminary results from SCiP

scipIt’s been just over two years since the Serving Communities Internship Program (SCiP) was launched and although there is still one more year left iun the 3-year pilot it seems like a good time to take stock of the journey so far. SCiP was collaboratively developed by stdent organizations (ASEC, CAUS, and AGC), the Government of Alberta, and Volunteer Alberta to ensure mutual benefit for both nonprofit organizations and students. Volunteer Alberta manages the day-to-day programming, promotions, and operations of the program on behalf of the partners.

There are three broad program objectives for SCiP:

  • Create meaningful opportunities for students to develop skills and deepen applied learning opportunities to support personal and career goals
  • Foster an appreciation for community engagement while supporting the efforts of nonprofit organizations to achieve their mission and strengthen local communities
  • Increase student awareness of the important contributions of the nonprofit sector to their communities and the possibilities of working in this sector.

These objectives guide how we measure and evaluate the program and based on the data collected so far we are starting to get a sense of the impact of SCiP, here are some highlights:

  • 375 internships were completed in year one of SCiP and 741 were completed in  year 2
  • By the end of year two of SCiP 5424 students have registered and 765 organizations have registered
  • 103 or 14% of year 2 completed internships were filled by repeat students who also completed internships in year 1 of SCiP
  • 75% of interns are female students, and most interns are 20 – 25 years of age

Survey Results*

  • 85% of organizations indicate that SCiP has a positive impact on their knowledge/ability to strategically engage post-secondary students
  • 94% of organizations indicate that SCiP has had a positive impact on their ability to meet mission
  • 93% of interns indicated they would do another SCiP internship
  • 63% of interns indicated that SCiP increased their awareness of the nonprofit sector as a place of employment
  • 99% of interns reported that SCiP has helped them gain practical skills and knowledge that will have value in their future employment
  • 85% of interns responded that SCiP has increased their awareness of the value of the nonprofit sector  to society/community
  • Before their internship 21% of interns were looking at the sector as a possible place of employment and after their internship 85% of interns were looking at the NPVS as a possible place of employment.
  • Before an internship 5% of interns stated that the nonprofit sector was their preferred sector of employment compared to 14% of interns after completing an internship.
  • 89% of student indicated that the $1000 bursary motivated them to apply for SCiP.

The statistics demonstrate that organizations and students are experiencing significant benefits from participating in SCiP. The program is developing a cohort of post-secondary students who recognize that the nonprofit sector has many professional opportunities and employment potential. Likewise, organizations are gaining key insights into how to mentor and engage students and new graduates meaningfully in ways they might not have considered before. Of course there have been bumps along the way and there is still a lot of work to be done to really capture the full impact of the 3-year pilot, but for now we can take comfort that positive change is being realized.

For the last word here some examples of the positive feedback SCiP has received:

“My internship at Hope Mission was incredible. It was a fun and humbling experience. I learned many new skills helping in the areas of Special Events and Fundraising, and Volunteer Services. I helped with grant writing; I got to help with planning, organizing and coordinating special events. The internship provided housing at the shelter and living there really completed the experience. I learned way more than I expected. I hope to take all I’ve learned with me in my education, my career and my life in general.”

 – Anonymous student Intern, year 2

“We have recruited 12 SCIP interns in the past year and all of our interns have been a great help to the organization. SCIP helps our organization fulfil the need of students to gain meaningful experience in their said field of academic majors. It also benefits the organization to achieve its goals and outcomes because of the relentless efforts done on part of these students in fulfilling their assigned tasks.”

– Anonymous SCiP Organization, year 2

*Report statistics were collected in 2 surveys during year 2 of SCiP from students and organizations. 214 organizations received the survey with a response rate of 80%, 741 students received the survey with a response rate of 54%


Annand Ollivierre, Program Manager

The Learning Journey

walkI just spent the large part of the last two weeks at two very interesting and dynamic professional development opportunities; the Social Enterprise World Forum (SEWF) and the Tamarack Communities Collaborating Institute (CCI). These opportunities have filled my head with a lot of ideas, tools and have built new connections and many new possibilities. It is hard to summarize what I have learned and thought about throughout the last two weeks but one idea that has stuck with me was introduced by Adam Kahane at the CCI.

Adam Kahane talked to us about a “learning journey” as a tool to build a greater understanding between players in a complex system so that social systems change becomes possible. As Mr. Kahane described it, a learning journey is when individuals who are from different parts of a system or community go and visit the system together to learn more about each other, their perspectives, and how they are impacted by, and contribute to, the community. It is a literal walk together that Mr. Kahane has seen as an essential component in orienting people towards working on complex problems together. It is a tool to build shared understanding between members within a diverse group, community or society.

It is so simple, going on a walk together, but how often are we asked or interested in walking with someone we don’t understand, have an opposing view point with, or can’t identify with? I find that in professional circumstances the risk for these types of conflicts are high and are also avoided. We go into meetings knowing we may not agree and are unsurprised when we leave without a shared understanding of what needs to change. I have found myself thinking that for community or society to improve we just need to take a “walk in the other person’s shoes” however, I think what the learning journey approach suggests is that we should seek to listen to how someone else lives in their “own shoes”. It’s not about switching places, rather it is about experiencing that same place together and sharing perspectives.

More information on Adam Kahane’s approaches to social change and dealing with complex societal challenges can be found in his three books; Solving Tough Problems, Transformative Scenario Planning, and Power and Love and at REOS Partners.

Annand Ollivierre, Program Manager

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