Recap: The Mayor’s Dialogue with the Human Services Sector

Back in November I attended “A Call to Action” at the Shaw Conference Centre along with hundreds of individuals from Edmonton’s Human Services Sector. I had been doing some research on the sector and thought it would be a useful opportunity to learn more. Here’s how the event was described:

We share a common vision for our City – it is a place that is inclusive where the opportunity exists for all individuals and families to contribute to its success – a place where people feel engaged and connected.

Our community is growing, the demands on services continue to increase, social issues are more complex and there are expectations on organizations to be more efficient and effective.  It’s clear; we must work differently to achieve better results.

Attached is an invitation to join the conversation about how we can leverage our collective strengths in order to enhance the lives of Edmontonians.

As I understand it, the event was a follow-up to a much smaller meeting that took place on June 28, 2012 between Mayor Mandel and approximately 35 leaders in the Human Services Sector. A series of recommendations were created out of that meeting, ranging from mentorship and training the next generation to better “alignment” between organizations.

The November event started with a series of presentations. First was Russ Dahms of ECVO. He stated the obvious, that governments are cutting spending, but cautioned: “this isn’t new, it is the new normal.” He cited three factors causing this: troubles in the Eurozone, the fiscal cliff in the United States, and reports that Canada’s economic growth is languishing. Looking specifically at Canada, he said that while we have the lowest debt compared to the rest of the G7, our per capita debt is $32,945.

As for nonprofits, Russ noted that they face “the continued challenge of core funding” in addition to trying to make sense of new terms like “social entrepreneurship.” On funding, he noted the landscape is changing with the Social Policy Framework, the FCSS review, and changes at other large funders. He also suggested that what funders are really interested in now is “purchasing accomplishments.” This goes by the fancy name of “outcomes procurement.” He finished by saying that change is needed and time is of the essence!

Next up was Anne Smith from the United Way. She said that nonprofits “need to expand our thinking” and that there’s an “opportunity to create the new normal.” There are some big questions to consider, and “we must explore the possibilities and be prepared to take actions,” she told the crowd. Anne noted that there are roughly 170,000 nonprofits in Canada and 23,000 in Alberta. About half of those are registered charities, and about 19% are faith based. Collectively they generate $10 billion in economic activity for Alberta yet nearly 60% have no paid staff at all. Nonprofits in Alberta also seem to be more self-sufficient than the national average, with just 33% of funding coming from the government, versus 49% across Canada.

What I found most interesting was the topic Anne talked about next. “Are there too many? Can’t you merge?” I have thought about this a lot, and I do think there are too many nonprofits, at least within our current structures. Anne said it was a difficult question to answer however, noting that “the nonprofit sector represents one of the best methods for civic engagement.” Can’t argue with that. She wondered how nonprofits can make better use of their collective resources, citing things like human resources and financial management. She noted there has been an increase in the number of funders too, and that leads to new application processes, reporting, etc.

“If we were to build it again, what would it look like? Not like it does today,” Anne said. She stated that bigger food banks and more shelters are not going to result in less poverty, and noted that “education is a vital and key aspect” of addressing some of the larger issues facing our society. “What gets funded gets done,” she said, adding that the aversion to funding operating costs is “an interesting preoccupation.” Building organizational capacity does not seem to be a priority. Anne noted the sector itself doesn’t help the situation as organizations compete by touting lower costs and trying to do more with less. “Organizational and systemic change cannot take place off the side of someone’s desk,” she declared.

Anne finished by mentioning Convergence, a study on five key trends hastening the emergence of a new social sector:

  • Demographic Shifts Redefine Participation
  • Technological Advances Abound
  • Networks Enable Work to Be Organized in New Ways
  • Interest in Civic Engagement and Volunteerism Is Rising
  • Sector Boundaries Are Blurring

“While each dynamic has profound implications for how nonprofits will do business in the future, it is their convergence that will transform the sector.” It is definitely worth a read.

And finally we heard from Mayor Mandel himself. He said he wants to see things happen in a more efficient and orderly way, noting that “cooperation is vitally important.” He said it’s a very exciting time despite the challenges, and that “tonight is a new opportunity.”

For the rest of the evening we discussed a series of challenges amongst our tablemates. Some tables then shared those with the larger group. It was a really interesting discussion and I’m very glad that I had the opportunity to attend.

I haven’t heard about any follow-up since the event, but I have continued my research and learning about the sector. More on that soon!