Canada’s Evolution and the Charitable Sector as its Steward

Monday, February 3, 2014
Chief Economist Commentary

In Reading for My Life, an excellent collection of essays, the late literature and television critic John Leonard takes time out from exhaustingly insightful reviews of novels and television to address then-newly-elected President Clinton on the role of the arts (and by implications all charities and nonprofits) in society. Paraphrasing slightly:

“A vigorous nation invests in the arts [and charities and nonprofits] not because it’s cost-efficient (a sort of seeding for a gross national product…), but because that’s how we dream our Republic.”

This is an apt reminder that in these days of near obsession with results based management and management by numbers, some of the things that charities and nonprofits provide for Canadians are, and will likely remain, intangible and immeasurable as well as immeasurably important. To use Leonard’s phrase, in dreaming what kind of country Canada can be, the sector needs to pull off a difficult balancing act – it needs simultaneously to imagine what the future can be as well as being an organic part of a future that will be determined by many factors outside the sector itself.

For example, many Canadians have a vision of a country that is socially just, environmentally responsible and economically successful in an increasingly integrated global marketplace where success will be measured by information, knowledge and innovation as much as by gifts of natural resources. Arguably, this sort of economy will be at one and the same time more personal and less personal (or more human and less human) at the same time.

It will be more personal or human in the sense that people and their talent and innovativeness and education will be the key to economic success, the key factor of production to use depersonalizing economic terminology. It will be less personal and human in the sense that workplaces will involve more information technology and less face to face interaction. Increasingly work will be decentralized, and interaction with others will take place electronically.

In this world people will increasingly seek the personal and human outside the work place – they will want to come together in organizations like charities and nonprofits because they want to make a difference, because they want the enrichment that arts and sport provides – fundamentally because they want the connection to the personal and the human.

Since they are smart and are used to sophisticated business models and metrics they will want to participate in a way that makes sure that their efforts make a real measureable difference in the world. Therefore the structure of a sophisticated modern charitable sector, staffed by professionals at home in the knowledge economy, will be essential to giving people the outlets they desire for their creative human impulses.

This future is a huge challenge for the charitable and nonprofit sector. On the one hand, this is the world in which charities will have to live and prosper – a world of smart and technologically literate people who are accustomed to management by metrics. On the other, the sector will need to be much more than simply a way of achieving goals which governments and businesses have difficulty in achieving or in which they have no interest (social justice or symphony orchestras for example). The sector will need to continue to be a steward of the intangible – continuously re-imagining what Canada can be and providing a space in which our humane and creative energies can make a difference.

But don’t expect any let up in the pressure to define results and measure them.

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About the Author

Chief Economist for Canada’s Charitable and Nonprofit Sector, Brian Emmett is tasked with measuring the impact of the sector and bringing economic issues facing charities and nonprofits to the forefront of public policy decision makers. Mr. Emmett is an economics graduate of the University of Western Ontario and the University of Essex in England, and has enjoyed a long and distinguished public service career. He was Canada’s first Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development in the late 1990s and worked extensively on Canada’s Green Plan. He also served as Vice-President of the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) in the early 2000s and has been an Assistant Deputy Minister in a number of federal government departments.

The office of the Chief Economist for Canada’s Charitable and Nonprofit Sector is made possible through funding received by The Muttart Foundation, Ontario Trillium Foundation, Vancouver Foundation, an anonymous donor, and the PricewaterhouseCoopers Canada Foundation.

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