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Open letter on advancing gender equality by investing in the nonprofit sector

Open letter on advancing gender equality by investing in the nonprofit sector

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A letter to Minister Freeland from Imagine Canada's Board Chair

Dear Minister Freeland, 

In December of 2018, your Government passed the Canadian Gender Budgeting Act, which aims to promote gender equality and greater inclusiveness through the annual federal budgeting process. We’re appealing to you to consider how gendered perceptions of care work have led to a chronic under-investment in the charitable and nonprofit sector and to take clear action to change this in budget 2021.

When most people think about work in the nonprofit sector, they imagine volunteers at food banks, counsellors at summer camps for disadvantaged youth, or dedicated staff taking care of our elders. They’re people driven by passion, caring for children and youth, marginalized communities, and the environment. Although this work may be viewed as noble, it is unfortunately not well compensated, in large part because of its association with women, especially women of color. In a 2018 report on women’s experiences in the nonprofit sector, the Ontario Nonprofit Network found that the nonprofit sector is viewed in stereotypically feminine ways. It is seen, for example, as “dependent, nurturing, caring, emotional, inferior to masculinity, unintelligent, unskilled, and requiring guidance and monitoring.” The study concluded that these perceptions had profound implications for all nonprofit sector workers, 80% of whom are women. 

The nonprofit sector contributes 8.5% to GDP - more than the construction, energy, transportation or agriculture sectors - and employs 2.4 million people or 12% of Canada’s labour force.1  Despite this, the sector seems to be largely invisible to the government. Every year, Statistics Canada collects detailed information on male-dominated industries that employ fewer people and account for less GDP than the nonprofit sector. Yet it has not conducted a single survey of the nonprofit sector since 2003. Similarly, no government entity is responsible for overseeing nonprofit sector policy and wellbeing and we are routinely forgotten when policies are being developed. When the government does pay attention to the sector, it often focuses on volunteerism or donations, rather than on the vital services our organizations provide or on our paid workforce. Our sector’s main point of contact with the Government is the Canada Revenue Agency’s Charities Directorate, whose main responsibility is to regulate the sector; this perpetuates the paternalistic perception that we need to be monitored.

Gendered perceptions of the nonprofit sector have an enormous impact on sector workers. Common funding practices, such as short-term contracts and extensive monitoring and reporting requirements, reflect a view that nonprofit workers are unskilled, untrustworthy and need to be carefully monitored. These funding practices, combined with general societal attitudes about nonprofit work, mean that workers often face low wages with few or no benefits and many jobs are part-time and/or short-term.2  It is also important to note that much of the labour performed in the nonprofit sector is unpaid.3  Volunteers are one of the sector’s greatest strengths, but their presence also contributes to perceptions that negatively impact sector workers (e.g., that workers should volunteer their time or at least not expect to be paid the same as those working in other sectors).

The fact that so many of our essential social, cultural and environmental programs and services are delivered through unpaid and underpaid labour is a clear signal that this work is undervalued. As we mark the one-year anniversary of the pandemic, the crucial value the nonprofit sector creates has never been clearer. Our organizations provide affordable quality childcare and a safer long-term care environment than private companies do.4  When families needed protection from gender-based violence during lockdown, our shelters were there to help. Our organizations provided learning resources for children out of school, food aid for those struggling financially, and relief and entertainment during an incredibly dark time. We will be equally essential to a fair and equitable recovery.

The Government has an opportunity, through budget 2021 and the work of the Task Force for Women in the Economy, to both address gender inequality and unleash the potential of the nonprofit sector. It can do this by:

I.    Addressing the government funding practices that lead to low-wage, precarious employment for our women-majority workforce

II.   Instructing Statistics Canada to collect, on an ongoing basis, economic and employment data on our workforce, and 

III.  Creating a ‘home in government’ for our sector to ensure policy coordination across departments, and that the unique characteristics of organizations are considered by policymakers


Ultimately, by valuing and investing in the nonprofit sector, the government can show that it values care work while materially improving working conditions for the nonprofit sector’s 1.9 million women workers. This will also contribute to a more equitable recovery by strengthening the nonprofit sector, which provides crucial programs and services in our communities to those who need them most.


Margaret Mason

Margaret Mason,

Board Chair



2 Senate of Canada, Report of the Special Senate Committee on the Charitable Sector, 2019, p. 33-36; Ontario Nonprofit Network, Women’s Voices: Stories about working in Ontario’s nonprofit sector, 2018, p. 20.

3 Statistics Canada estimates that volunteers contributed 1.7 billion hours of labour in 2018, which is the equivalent to 863,000 full-time year-round jobs.


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