Charities and Nonprofits a Strategic Component to Canada’s Success

Tuesday, November 12, 2013
Chief Economist Commentary
Public Policy

Many people are curious about my new role as Chief Economist for Canada’s Charitable and Nonprofit Sector with Imagine Canada, the national umbrella for the sector, and are surprised when I tell them about the sector’s economic impact and reach. Perhaps people are vaguely aware that charities and nonprofits are employers and produce social and economic value, but not necessarily how much they contribute to Canada’s gross domestic product: two and one half times the contribution of agriculture and a surprising six times as much as automobile manufacturing. Nor do they realize that charities and nonprofits offer such a range of value here and throughout the world: tackling social issues; delivering health care and higher education; supporting arts and culture; and providing sports leagues and recreational facilities for Canadians and their children.

But my response is also more fundamental. The importance of these organizations goes well beyond a simple accounting of the costs and benefits they provide. In a more dynamic sense, charities and nonprofits are a vitally important component – a strategic driver – of our success as a country, of our quality of life, and of an economy that generates jobs and prosperity now and, increasingly, in the future.

Canadians want to be sustainably prosperous in a highly competitive world economy in which knowledge and information will be increasingly valued and important; and in which services and technology play a greater and greater role. More and more, people, with their talent, skills and education, will be Canada’s most important resource. But information and knowledge, services and talented people, are highly mobile – they can find a home anywhere in the world. Talented people will move to the places that allow them to make a meaningful contribution to their own lives and to others. In other words, to lead lives of value that make a difference in a country that offers not only economic opportunity but a high quality of life.

In this view of the future, charities and nonprofits are not case by case responses to social, cultural and environmental problems that come up from time to time. Rather they are a systemic part of the fabric that makes Canada a country in which it is highly desirable to live and to make a contribution. This is why the sustainability of charities and nonprofits is important for governments and citizens.

The sector’s strategic value will increase as business, government and charities continue to develop and nurture mutually supportive and creative relationships. Equally, the value of the sector to our quality of life depends on the extent to which charities and nonprofits can rise to the challenge of keeping pace with a rapidly changing modern world. This will mean demonstrating to increasingly sophisticated donors, volunteers, governments, and businesses that charities and nonprofits are indeed making a difference in the communities they serve. It requires these organizations to keep pace with business models that are changing rapidly; and to create jobs that provide the quality of work experience which allows people to be successful throughout careers in which change will be the norm.

In this vision, governments, citizens and businesses will together provide funding and a supportive environment for charities and nonprofits which, in turn provide an essential contribution to a robust economy and quality of life. The result: a country in which Canadians will continue to be happy and productive and proud to live.

Continued Commentary from the Chief Economist

This post is the first entry in a new Chief Economist Commentary blog series by Imagine Canada focusing on economic issues affecting the charitable and nonprofit sector in Canada. It is intended to be one element in Imagine Canada’s expanding work on economics and public policy.

The sector is an important one in terms of it contribution to economic activity and jobs. In Canada, more than 165,000 organizations work in areas ranging from healthcare to sports, the arts, social services, education, international development and the environment, yet the true impact and contribution of the charitable and nonprofit sector - 8.1% of GDP and 10.5% of the labour force - remains under-represented in the public policy arena.

This means economics and economic policies are increasingly important to charities and nonprofits. Thus the role of the Chief Economist is to measure the impact of the sector; bring economic issues facing charities and nonprofits to the forefront of public policy decision makers, analyze and provide advice about related policies, programs and legislation.

I hope this new blog series will be an informal place to explore views and ideas, both my own and those of others; to reflect on items which are of more general interest; and solicit views and reactions. I intend to update the blog frequently but irregularly with updates driven by events and items of interest. Any comments and suggestions will be gratefully received. Please feel free to share them in the comments section below or email me directly at bemmett@imaginecanada.ca.

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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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