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!

Learning about poverty in Edmonton through a simulation

I recently had the opportunity to participate in Edmonton’s first-ever Poverty Simulation. Sponsored by the EPCOR Community Essentials Council (of which I was a member), the simulation was organized by the United Way of the Alberta Capital Region and brought a few dozen community and business leaders together to learn more about the challenges that low-income families in our community face. According the United Way’s Cost Poverty Report 2012:

The cost of poverty in Alberta is between $7.1 and $9.5 billion per year – a monetary cost incurred by us all. But the deeper costs are seen through the lives of those living in poverty, the effects it has on them, their children and families.

The poverty simulation attempts to provide some insight into those deeper costs.

After I arrived I was given a nametag that told me which character I’d be playing. Turns out I would be Diana Duntley for the morning, a 14-year-old girl. After breakfast, we were instructed to find the rest of our family, and to read the package that gave us more information about our particular situation. I was in school but unmotivated, my older brother had dropped out and was in trouble with the law, and my father was now out of the picture leaving my mother without a job but a bunch of bills to pay.

Poverty Simulation
Photo supplied by United Way

Our task was to survive for a month and to get all of our bills paid. To simulate the time, each week took 15 minutes, and each weekend an additional 2 minutes. Services and organizations were setup all around the room – the school, the grocery store, the utility company, the bank, etc. To get from place to place, you often had to surrender a transit ticket, to try to simulate the transportation challenges people face.

I went to school for three of the four weeks (one was a holiday so there was no school) while my brother and mother did their best to try to find ways to pay our bills. My mother managed to get a job, and my brother turned out to be quite adept at getting vouchers and assistance from the services in the room. In the end though, we did not manage to pay all of the bills.

Poverty Simulation
Photo supplied by United Way

The experience was an eye-opening one for me. I think the word most often used by participants to describe how the simulation made them feel was “hopeless”. It’s a simulation, but it really does give some valuable insight into the difficult decisions that those “living on the edge” in our community face each month. Here are the key things I took away from the simulation:

  • We had no idea where to start, and I suspect many people in our community face that challenge. What’s the best strategy or approach to ensure you can make ends meet? We do have 211 here in Edmonton but unfortunately that did not exist in the simulation. I have been asking people about it ever since, and not many know about it.
  • The teachers at school spent a significant chunk of their time dealing with issues that had nothing to do with teaching the curriculum. Following up with students for fees, needing to send letters home to parents, etc.
  • There’s doesn’t always seem to be a lot of support for families who are just barely making it each month. When we think about the less fortunate we often think about shelters, but there’s a whole range of services needed to help the families that are just trying to pay the bills. From the United Way’s Pathways Out of Poverty: “Poverty is not having sufficient resources, capabilities, choices, security, and power necessary to enjoy an adequate standard of living.”
  • When you spend all of your time and energy of just making sure you have heat or just getting food on the table, there’s no opportunity to ensure the food you’re buying is healthy and nutritious, nor is there any time or money to save for a better future. You’re always dealing with right now, instead of preparing for tomorrow.

I thought the simulation was really well-organized. It was developed by the Missouri Association for Community Action, and it has since been used all around North America. The United Way localized the program to make it fit the Edmonton context, and I expect they will continue to improve and tweak it based on feedback. One suggestion I would make is to try to simulate the transportation challenge more realistically. The cost per ticket is now $3, not $1 as it was in the simulation, but more important is the amount of time it can take to get from place to place. In the room everything is conveniently located close together and close to where everyone lives, but in the real world services may actually be quite far away. Another improvement would be to provide more concrete actions or next steps to the participants. Going through the simulation is great, but what happens next? How can you take action to make a difference?

Poverty Simulation
Me talking to the utility company. Photo by David O.

I wanted to share some of the statistics that everyone who participated in the simulation left with. On education:

  • Approximately 9000 students drop out of high school each year in Alberta.
  • 40% of adults in Alberta have low literacy skills and 50% of adults have low numeric skills.
  • Approximately $142 million is incurred annually by the Province of Alberta for high school drop outs (that’s unemployment, lost tax revenue, social assistance, judicial system and health care costs, etc.)
  • 73% of First Nations, Metis, and Inuit students in EPSB do not graduate within the first 3 years of entering Grade 10.
  • Over 2100 children received food through E4C’s School Lunch program during the 2010/2011 school year.

On income:

  • As of September 2012, there were 2459 people on the wait list for social housing in the Capital Region.
  • In 2009, roughly 123,000 people in the Capital Region were living in poverty (using the Statistics Canada measure of Low Income Cut-Off).
  • Approximately 15,000 individuals were served every month by Edmonton’s Food Bank in 2011.
  • Approximately 44% of food bank users are under the age of 18.
  • Three of four children living in poverty come from homes where at least one parent is working.

On wellness:

  • In Edmonton, there are more than 40 youth gangs which engage in drug related crimes, extortion, and auto theft, among other crimes. Approximately 80% of the people involved in the drug trade in Edmonton are estimated to be 18-30 years old.
  • In 2011, the Edmonton Police Service responded to 6292 reported cases of domestic violence.
  • One in five people in our community will likely experience a mental illness in their lifetime.
  • The Capital Region is the second largest growth area for government-related services, and 211 has experienced a 10.2% increase in call volume recently.

And finally, here are a few related statistics provided by the Edmonton Social Planning Council:

  • The average weekly cost of a nutritious food basket for a family of four in Edmonton has increased by 6.6% from $186.88 in April 2010 to $198.93 in April 2012.
  • Average monthly rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Edmonton has increased by 4.2% from $994 in April 2010 to $1,036 in April 2012.
  • The cost of water, heat and electricity in Edmonton has increased by 12.4% in the two years between 2009 and 2011.
  • The cost of a monthly bus pass has increased by 11.1% from $75.25 in January 2010 to $84.65 today.
  • The cost of regular unleaded gasoline in Edmonton has increased by 28.7% from 87.2 cents/litre in June 2010 to 112.2 cents/litre in June 2012.

I understand the United Way will be organizing more simulations in the future, so if you ever get the opportunity to participate I would highly recommend that you do!

You can learn more by reading this post by Karina Hurtado about a poverty simulation that took place recently in Calgary, and this post by ABC Head Start.