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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

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

There Are Penguins in Grande Prairie

Source: Antarctic Photo Library. United States Antarctic Program.

I recently took a quick trip to beautiful Grande Prairie, or “GP” as the locals say, to give the keynote address at the first Non-profit & Social Purpose Expo hosted and located at The Community Village.

The theme of the talk was The Power of Community. In the weeks leading up to the event, I spent my usual post-work walk home mulling over the approach I’d take. Would I talk about Martha Parker’s ideas around managers and directors of volunteers becoming “strategists in community engagement”? Or I would I speak about the 2011 State of the World’s Volunteerism Report and the common global values regarding volunteerism? Although both of those topics interest me (among others), the one idea that made the most sense to me was to talk about Emperor Penguins.

To be clear, I’ve never paid much notice to penguins, I have always considered them cute, quirky birds that dress well, but after seeing the movie March of the Penguins I had a new found respect for Aptenodytes forsteri. While reflecting on the movie I came to the conclusion that these penguins can teach us something about the power of community.

First, what are the similarities? Penguins and humans are both social animals, survive harsh winters and like to summer by the sea, are large and flightless, are mainly monogamous, and look good dressed up. How penguins endure, survive and thrive in their environment is where the lessons can be learned about the power of community. As a side note, when I refer to community I am talking specifically about a community of nonprofit/voluntary sector organizations that operate in the same community trying to improve said community. Without going into a lot of how penguins live (you can look it up on Wikipedia like I did) let’s just say Emperor penguins have chosen a tough path to survival and have chosen to band together during the toughest times.

So, what are the lessons the nonprofit/voluntary sector can learn from these birds:

1)      Survival depends on working together – Without each other, penguins would not be able to stay warm. Without other nonprofit organizations, no one would be able demonstrate their importance. It is a community of organizations that truly has the most impact.

2)      We are all trying to nurture something we care about – For penguins it is their eggs, and for organizations it is the cause, broader community, clients, volunteers, and employees we aim to nurture.

3)      Not everybody makes it– Despite our best efforts, sometimes environmental stresses and ever so slight missteps claim victims. No matter how difficult it is when a fellow organization fails or flounders, it is the larger community’s responsibility to show resolve and continue on to set the example of what is possible.

4)      It is worth the time, effort and energy it takes to work together as a community – In the end it’s about building a stronger community with more to offer and a brighter future, working together guarantees it.  Penguins hatch chicks, organizations get stronger networks working together to more effectively hatch positive community outcomes.

5)      When it feels cold and lonely that is the time to come together as a community – Penguins could chose to do it on their own rather than, literally, huddle together. Nonprofits should think the same way. When resources are low, and the future seems bleak, that is the exact time to look to your peers and find the opportunities to collaborate and find creative solution to common challenges.

There it is. Penguins demonstrate the power of community and, if nothing else, it is a strong image to remember. So, the next time you are feeling yourself out alone in the nonprofit world, think of the Emperor Penguins huddled together staying warm and surviving. It should at least inspire to reach out and connect to your nonprofit community.


Annand Ollivierre

Program Manager

Volunteers Vote 2012 Helps You Gear Up for the Spring Election!

With the provincial election coming soon, Volunteer Alberta is connecting you with the information you need to be an informed voter. Volunteers Vote 2012 is a non-partisan guide to the upcoming spring election. The webpage features the policies of each party, in their own words, on the issues relevant to volunteers and Alberta’s nonprofit/voluntary sector.

Between mainstream media and social media, there are hundreds of sources of information regarding this upcoming election. Volunteers Vote 2012 gives Albertans an impartial and non-partisan source of information with a focus on the issues facing the nonprofit/voluntary sector.

Volunteers Vote 2012 provides links to the campaign platforms of each provincial party and how their positions affect Alberta’s nonprofit/voluntary sector. In addition to the party platforms, Volunteers Vote 2012 provides basic information to help you determine which riding you vote in, and which candidates are running in your riding. There is also an FAQ page to answer questions regarding voter eligibility and voter registration.

People who work and volunteer in the nonprofit/voluntary sector are some of the most engaged Albertans, so you know better than anyone what challenges the sector faces in this province. This provincial election will affect the future of the sector, so make sure you are informed and take advantage of this opportunity to exercise your democratic right. Volunteer Alberta will be updating Volunteers Vote 2012 regularly so check back for updates as Election Day draws near. Please access this resource in the weeks leading up to the election.

Volunteer Alberta wants to know what most affects the way you vote. Is it the party, party leader, candidate, party platform or some other reason? Cast your vote in the Volunteers Vote 2012 poll.


Tim Henderson

Office/Communications Coordinator

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