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Imagine Canada

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Getting to know Canada's nonprofit sector: why we need better data

Monday, August 28, 2017
Guest Writers
Public Policy
Public Policy
Jason Goertzen

Did you know that we can tell how many eggs are produced and how many asphalt roofing tiles are manufactured each month in Canada, but we don’t know how many charities and nonprofits there are?  Unfortunately, knowledge about the composition and impact of the Canada’s ‘third sector’ has declined for more than a decade.

There is growing recognition of the impact of the sector, in terms of employment, volunteerism, service provision, community building, and contribution to Canada’s GDP.  In a recent paper, for example, Brian Emmett, Imagine Canada’s Chief Economist for Canada’s Charitable Nonprofit Sector, projects that the sector will “account for more than $200 billion in revenue and roughly 700,000 jobs in 2026” (p. 32).  Indeed, the sector is growing.  In addition to having a major economic impact and providing employment for many Canadians, the sector’s impact is also felt in terms of quality of life in Canada.  From arts and culture to sports and recreation, from education and research to health, from social services to religion, and beyond, the charitable and nonprofit sector plays an active part in making communities vibrant.

To speak precisely and meaningfully about the composition and impact of the sector, current and more frequently available data is sorely needed.  How does the sector differ from Halifax to Vancouver?  Are specific subsectors differentially impacted during tougher economic times?  How is charitable giving changing over time?  How is employment in the sector changing over time?  What is the sector’s contribution to Canada’s GDP?  To best answer these and other important questions, the collection and publication of corresponding data is key. 

Of still greater concern, without current data, policy decisions are being made with a weaker, and less evidence-based, understanding of their impacts on the sector.  Indeed, given that key information about the sector is a decade or more old, policy makers have to rely on data from before two economic recessions!  Economically and socially, Canada has changed significantly since the last time the above-mentioned data initiatives were conducted.  The sector itself has also changed.  But, how has the sector changed?  What does it look like now?  What is its current impact for Canada and the communities it serves across our country? 

The answers are in the data that needs to be collected.

Dated Data

The last national examination of the composition of the sector is found in the National Survey of Nonprofit and Voluntary Organizations (NSNVO), which contains data from 2003. 

Similarly, robust information on the economic impact of the sector was previously provided in the Satellite Account of Non-profit Institutions and Volunteering, but this reporting has not proceeded past data from 2007. 

Lastly, important information on donations and volunteering, previously found in the Canada Survey of Giving, Volunteering and Participating (CSGVP), has been rolled into the General Social Survey.  As a result, it is now only available every five years, which makes analyzing trends practically impossible, especially in times of rapid social and economic change. 

    Working group on Sector-Wide Data

    Major stakeholders have come together in a sector-wide data working group to improve the availability and accessibility of data about the charitable and nonprofit sector (meet the working group).

    The working group’s mandate is to:

    1. Map out currently available federal data resources for the charitable and nonprofit sector and identify data gaps
    2. Develop policy recommendations on what the federal government can do to address the gaps in data

    Our goal is to advocate for renewed and improved information about the sector, which contributed over $160 billion to the Canadian economy in 2007 (Satellite Account) and featured $112 billion in revenues in 2003 (NSNVO).  The group aims to advance the collection and publication of data pertaining to the wellbeing and nature of the sector.  This includes data about the size (e.g., by annual revenue and economic impact), subsector breakdown (e.g., arts and culture, social services, etc.), staff and volunteer resources, and financing of the sector.

    We’ll keep you posted of our progress through the Early Alert and our blog. In the meantime, let us know if you have any questions or would like to get involved.

    About the Author

    Jason GoertzenJason Goertzen is the Policy and Research Manager at the Calgary Chamber of Voluntary Organizations (CCVO), an organization that promotes and strengthens the nonprofit and voluntary sector by developing and sharing resources and knowledge, building connections, leading collaborative work, and giving voice to critical issues affecting the sector.  Jason has a keen interest in the intersection of data and the sector, and in producing knowledge about the sector.

    Guest contributions represent the personal opinions and insights of the authors and may not reflect the views or opinions of Imagine Canada.

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