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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

Someone Has to Pay: The Awesomes and the Worries of the New Social Policy Framework

Have you read the Alberta’s Social Policy Framework?

While reading it, a few key things jumped out at me.  Overall I think the document is very promising. I’m not going to get into a detailed description of the Framework here, but if you want to know what it says, read it here. That being said, what I would like to focus on are the awesome parts, and the worrying parts.


Like I said before, overall the framework is pretty good and it is excellent to have on paper the recognition that nonprofits have a track record of success when it comes to providing the sorts of services that we have all come to want and need. Along these lines what I really liked was the commitment to the organizing principle of subsidiarity. Subsidiarity means that the lowest, smallest or most decentralized body is the most appropriate authority to address an issue. Essentially, the organization closest to the issue is the most competent organization to deal with the issue and deliver the solutions.

The Framework addresses this by stating in Roles and Responsibilities that:

“communities, local groups, and organizations are often best situated to respond to social challenges. They can develop solutions that reflect their needs, priorities, and capacities.”

This is true.  When you’re closer to the ground, as Alberta’s nonprofits and voluntary sector organizations are, you can get a more accurate read of trends and complex, nuanced issues, as well as be more precise and effective in implementing solutions. Additionally, being separate from the formal structure of government makes nonprofits more agile and flexible in how they respond to changing trends evolving priorities.

As the GOA’s role shifts from “service provider, funder, and legislator” to “influencer, convener, and partner,” more responsibility for providing services will be placed in the hands of the nonprofit/voluntary sector, which could ultimately stand to benefit Albertans.



With great power comes great responsibility; with great responsibility comes great costs. Nonprofits already provide a huge array of services on lean budgets, however an increase in programs and services means more resources, facilities, supplies and staff will be required. For all of those things, someone has to pay.

What worries me about the Framework is the Government’s shift in focus away from “funder” to “influencer,” and no clear mention of a plan to underwrite the cost of downloading these responsibilities to the nonprofit sector. I’m not necessarily saying that the government has to pay, but someone has to, whether it be through private donations, user fees, direct billing, pay-for-delivery funding schemes, etc.

What we need to see is a long term strategy for funding. We need to make sure our donation incentive system is effective, and that user fees don’t make important programs and services inaccessible. This solution for nonprofits that isn’t one size fits all, and it must also include a realistic grasp of the cost of delivering services to Albertans, including personnel, operating, and administrative costs.

And so, it is with this in mind that I look forward to the Budget announcement tomorrow, March 7 at 3pm.

Ellie McFarlane, Program Coordinator

Engaging a New Pool of Volunteer Leaders

Courtesy of guardian.co.uk

Courtesy of guardian.co.uk

While people are often open to volunteering when called upon, it can be more difficult to fill volunteer leadership positions in an organization. “I’d love to help with that initiative, but I don’t want to be in charge,” is not an uncommon refrain. Finding suitable people for your board, council, or committee can be especially difficult. When you think about it, it should come as no surprise that these positions are the hardest to fill – they require difficult decision-making, greater responsibility, and oftentimes they demand the biggest time commitment.

In her article, “Where are your volunteer leaders?” in the Nov/Dec 2012 edition of Nonprofit World, Susan Ellis recommends going back to the two basic recruitment principles when recruiting volunteers for leadership positions:

– Identify the benefits of being in a leadership position;
– Identify those people most likely to find those rewards satisfying.

Think outside the box, toss out conventional wisdom, and take a fresh approach if your current volunteer recruitment techniques aren’t working. For example:

– Instead of approaching the hyper-engaged volunteer, ask a less active volunteer that you feel may be looking for an opportunity to step up and make a larger impact. Not only that, but they likely have more time to commit to a leadership position.
– Re-evaluate the role description of the post that you are trying to fill. Sometimes redesigning the role can make the position more enticing (and whenever possible, avoid the dreaded “co-chair” scenario. Often, neither co-chair feels ownership and is wary of overstepping the other).

Considering a wider group of volunteers for leadership positions may help identify someone with unfulfilled potential and, as mentioned in a previous VA blog on retaining volunteers, flexibility is a key to happy volunteers – whether they’re on your board, council or committee. Making accommodations can go a long way to filling those leadership roles in your nonprofit organization.

Nonprofit World is part of the Volunteer Alberta Resource Centre (VARC) collection. To schedule a visit to the Resource Centre, contact Tim at thenderson@volunteeralberta.ab.ca.


Tim Henderson, Office and Communications Coordinator

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

4 Tips for Happy Volunteers – Part 2

Last post, we shared tips 1 and 2 for happy volunteers: know your volunteers’ reasons for volunteering with you, and practice good communication with your volunteers.  Here are two more tips for ensuring that your volunteers are enjoying their experience at your organization that will keep them coming back for more.

  1. Structure your volunteer opportunities so that they offer challenging and rewarding learning experiences. Mentor your volunteers throughout their stay, and offer additional training opportunities when possible. This might include First Aid training, the chance to sit in on a class your organization offers, or connecting your volunteers to great job shadowing opportunities. Never stick your volunteer solely on envelope licking duty without giving them the chance to work on something more engaging as well (unless they really like envelope licking). As your volunteers improve in their roles, give them a promotion by adding new challenges and responsibilities, and always make sure they have a chance to see the outcome of their efforts.
  2. Be appreciative. I have left the best tip for last! Some ideas for showing your volunteers your appreciation:
  • Say ‘thank you’ (honestly, it’s that simple)!
  • Hold a volunteer recognition event like a wrap-up party or an appreciation breakfast
  • Provide food and refreshments for your volunteers when they work a long shift
  • Show increasing trust in your volunteers (ex. give more senior volunteers a key to the office or more unsupervised opportunities)
  • Provide perks and incentives after a volunteer has worked with you for a certain amount of time (ex. provide a reference letter for volunteers after 6 months, or take your volunteer out for lunch on their one-year anniversary).

Even providing flexibility is a great way to show that you appreciate their work and that you respect them as a person and a colleague. Like, when a volunteer has a sick kid at home or is planning a trip. Allowing them that leeway will ensure they know you appreciate their contribution.

Check out the Learning Resource Guides in Volunteer Alberta’s Resource Centre (VARC) for more ideas and information on volunteer recruitment, retention, and recognition.

Please leave your own volunteer management tips in the comment section!

Sam Kriviak, Program Coordinator

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