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Olympic Spirit in the Nonprofit Sector

sochi2014Once again, Canada, along with the rest of the world, has been swept up in the Olympic Games. For spectators, the Games have taken over our televisions and pervaded our conversations. For Sochi, the Olympic excitement started years ago, with many countries bidding for the 2014 Winter Games in hopes that they would become the chosen venue. Similarly, the participating athletes have trained for years, often since they were children, with their eyes on the prize of becoming Olympians.

All this, despite the fact that hosting the Games comes with a huge price tag and a history of poor economic return. Participating as an athlete also offers little financial benefit, especially given the time and dedication required to qualify.

Without profit as the main driving force of the Games, the spirit of the Olympics in many ways feels similar to the spirit of the nonprofit sector.

In both, the moment is paramount. A single soup kitchen may be unable to solve world hunger, or even break the cycle of poverty for its clients, but there is some inherent value in feeding one hungry person one healthy meal. Similarly, standing on the top of the podium or hosting the Olympics may be a once in a lifetime experience, but it is worth it just for that moment. In both cases, that one moment becomes part of something bigger. And that moment is about community building.

Feeling joy in the success of strangers with whom we share only a loose connection is a familiar feeling in the nonprofit sector. We want our communities to thrive and our neighbours to have a good quality of life. We truly believe that each individual win is a win for us all. Similarly, we are elated when Canadians we have never met reach the podium, achieving a lifelong goal. We are also thrilled when the underdogs of our global community pull through on the world stage (after all, the Jamaican bobsled team has fans far beyond its country’s borders).

Although the definition of success for an Olympic athlete looks very different from that of a nonprofit, both strive to be better each time out. No athlete sets a record and expects that it will never be broken, and no nonprofit believes the sector’s work ends with the completion of their own current project. The shared spirit of our sector and of the Games is a deeply human one: permanent aspiration. And while we may run into challenges along the way to achieving our goals, the promise of a better future will continue to bring us together one win, one moment at a time.

Sam Kriviak, Program Coordinator

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Is Your Organization Doing Enough Research and Evaluation?

evaluationIn September 2012, I decided to go back to school part-time and do the Public Relations Program at Macewan University. I will complete my program later this year and I can’t speak highly enough about the program, the instructors and the content. It was also an opportunity for me to explore the for-profit world from an interesting standpoint: my entire post post-secondary work experience has been in the nonprofit sector. I started my professional career here at VA and going back to school (in this particular program) has taught me that while there are many similarities between the sectors, the nonprofit sector can be very different.

The courses in my program have been quite varied but several concepts and principles run throughout the program. One in particular that hit close to home was the RACE formula: research, analyze, communicate, evaluate. After learning how crucial the research phase is to a communications plan, I realized how often we aren’t able to do that in the nonprofit sector. As we carefully craft funding proposals and consider the logistics of program operations, we don’t always have the time to research to validate that this new program/initiative/project is required in the sector or in our community. We hope for the best and if that project doesn’t quite meet targets, we wonder why. Was it something we did? Did we miss something? Did the logo or font not appeal to people?

It’s not for lack of trying. When a funding approval letter comes in the mail months after the project’s projected start date it creates a sense of urgency.  Sometimes there simply isn’t time to research, because from day one it’s already behind and the tendency is to head right to program planning.

Evaluation is also an aspect that can also be inadvertently neglected. We complete the funding report templates, but will we relate those results back to our strategic plan or our mission and values? Once we give the funder the information they require, how can we turn it into something tangible to demonstrate impact and perhaps produce better results next year?

Research should be built into project timelines and budget, with ample time for focus groups, surveying or literature review. Evaluation needs to be an accurate reflection of the success of the project for an organization, not just the return on investment for funders.

We might even find that thorough evaluation will recommend research.

Check out these resources on research & evaluation:

VARC Learning Resource Guides on Program Evaluation
Pillar Nonprofit Network – Sector Research
Or, search VARC for research and evaluation resources

Lisa Michetti, Member Engagement Manager

ECVO Mayoral Forum October 15, 2013

City_HallI had the pleasure of attending the Edmonton Chamber of Voluntary Organizations (ECVO) Mayoral Candidate Forum on Tuesday. The well organized and attended event had candidates focus on their plans for Edmonton’s nonprofit/voluntary sector should they be elected Mayor. The format was standard, with opening and closing statements, questions chosen from sector submissions, and questions selected from the audience. Candidates were given one minute to respond to questions; a short amount of time that separated candidates with well-thought-out ideas from those with plans that seemed more ad hoc.

Here are a few of the notable questions with candidates’ responses.

What do you see as the priority issue facing Edmonton’s NPVS and how would City Council collaborate with the sector for the best outcomes?

Diotte – Wants to control City spending; would keep funding to NPVS flowing regardless.

Iveson – Inclusion and closing the economic gap is a priority; the NPVS is a partner and a source of expertise in this matter and would consult.

Leibovici – It is time to focus on social infrastructure. We must ensure newcomers are welcome and that our institutions reflect that diversity.  The lack of rental housing is also an issue.

Semotiuk – Accessibility of services is an issue; would consult with the sector on solutions.

Ward – ‘Hard’ infrastructure is at the expense of ‘soft’ infrastructure and communities.

How can the City of Edmonton partner with the nonprofit/voluntary sector to improve quality of life for underprivileged communities in our city?

D –Address these issues through listening and communication and have an “open door” to speak about the issues.

I – Frontline workers’ relationships with marginalized communities can create safe spaces for the city to hear directly from the communities in question, in addition to front line workers expertise.

L – The city is already accomplishing this and cites Edmonton’s 10 Year Plans to End Homelessness as an example of success.

S – Would like the city to improve its listening skills and would work through sector consultation to address this issue.

W – Agreed with Liebovici, thinks that Edmonton is already doing a good job of this and would like to approach solutions from a business perspective.

What role could the City play in strengthening Edmonton’s nonprofit/voluntary sector workforce?

D – Would keep the city affordable to live in by limiting property tax increases to inflation.

I – Would help organizations advocate to the Government of Alberta for funding that is structured to allow more HR expenditure.

L – Would advocate to the provincial government for more support.

S – Would support organizations seeking affordable space.

W – Had no answer, reiterates that he would work through advocacy and listening to solve problems.

Final Impressions

Overall, the forum was very informative. Diotte and Leibovici stuck mainly to their campaign platforms, with Leibovici promoting her experience as her greatest asset, and Diotte repeating his promises to keep property taxes, spending, and debt low. Ward and Semotiuk’s answers were consistent, both onboard with consultation and working in partnership with the sector. Ward, however, had an explicit business perspective that differed from all other candidates in the race. Of the five candidates present, my impression was that Iveson had the most nuanced understanding of the business of nonprofits, with Leibovici coming in second, both having experience on similar, or the same, initiatives as councillors.

Regardless of who you think should be Edmonton’s next mayor, be sure to get out and vote! Information on voting in Edmonton can be found here.

Ellie McFarlane, Program Coordinator

Don’t Be Afraid to Ask for Help

Courtesy of Orange County Register

Courtesy of Orange County Register

In early August, the Edmonton Humane Society (EHS) had to temporarily close its doors to owner-surrendered animals. For the first time in their 106 year history, they had too many animals to realistically care for. Within hours of the announcement, the EHS website was forced to temporarily shut down due to a huge amount of activity, and in the three days that followed their announcement, the public responded with 167 adoptions, a new record for EHS.

EHS knew when to ask for help; they knew that if animals continued to come through their doors that they may not receive the best care possible. They put the word out that they needed help and Edmontonians responded.

Many nonprofit organizations exist to help, whether it’s helping people, animals or the environment. The very nature of this sector is to provide assistance that is lacking; so why are many nonprofit organizations afraid to ask for help? How often do we sell ourselves short when we talk about what we do, whether its to clients or to potential funders?

Amanda Palmer has a great TED talk called the Art of Asking and the shame that can be associated with it (she’s rocking some wild eyebrows so be prepared). Palmer also discusses the power of crowdsourcing and social media, which EHS did wonderfully with their recent crisis. When their website had to be shut down due to overactivity, their Facebook and Twitter became their main communication tools. They had to act very quickly to get information up on these outlets, which they did, and that allowed them to solve their overcrowding problem within just a few days.

Lisa Michetti, Member Engagement Manager

Unpaid Internships – Doing it Right

_DSC0142Unpaid internships have become a hot topic recently. In the United States, unpaid interns are suing big companies that have offered subpar opportunities with little educational or experiential value. In Canada, students and politicians are pushing for clearer legal standards for unpaid internships to avoid similarly exploitative experiences.

So where does the Serving Communities Internship Program (SCiP) fit into this debate? SCiP, a program offered by Volunteer Alberta in partnership with the Government of Alberta, connects nonprofit/voluntary organizations with post-secondary students across the province. While interns participating in SCiP do receive a $1000 bursary from the Government of Alberta after completing their SCiP internship, the positions themselves are unpaid.

The bursary is the first thing that sets SCiP apart from other internship programs. Critics of unpaid internships have argued that they offer an unfair advantage to students who can afford to take time away from work or school and are inaccessible to students who need to maintain an income. By offering interns $1000 for completing an internship, SCiP provides enabling dollars that allow students to take time for this learning opportunity. As well, all SCiP internships are part-time and designed to be flexible around school and work commitments.

SCiP internships are also vetted by our staff to ensure we only offer meaningful, skill-based opportunities. Past internships have included designing websites, building a bicycle fleet, facilitating workshops, creating new logos, and coordinating volunteers. We do not approve internships comprised solely of licking envelopes, photocopying, or filing. Not only do interns benefit from these guidelines, but nonprofits also enjoy the outcomes of these high level projects and the real impact they have on their missions in the province. The mutual benefit of SCiP extends past the immediate internships. Interns gain valuable experience that they can add to their resumes and draw on as they move forward with their studies and with their careers. Nonprofit/voluntary organizations gain human capacity as well as an opportunity to demonstrate to the future of nonprofit leadership how rewarding working and volunteering in the sector is.

Aside from the focus on accessibility and shared value, perhaps the biggest difference between SCiP internships and the unpaid internships currently garnering media attention is that SCiP internships are only offered to Alberta nonprofits helping Albertans. There are no shareholders making money off of SCiP interns’ work; instead, the interns are building and supporting their own communities. Furthermore, many of the nonprofits offering SCiP internships are directly involved in addressing issues like poverty, unemployment, exploitation and adult education – the very issues that those concerned with unpaid internships are also looking to tackle.

SCiP has just completed a very successful second year with over 700 internships filled in over 35 communities across the province since September 2012. The third year of SCiP begins on August 1st, 2013. For more information, or to sign up for the program, please visit www.joinscip.ca.

Sam Kriviak, Program Coordinator

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