Think Philanthropically

Why would anyone suggest that the local charitable and community services sector ought to reimagine their programs or services? Who would have the audacity to raise questions about the highly dedicated people who selflessly serve in our community? No need to panic. This column will not call into question the intentions or the commitment of any community organization. However, the assumptions that were foundational for community-based charitable activities in the 20th Century are insufficient in the 21st Century because realities and needs have shifted. Merely being kind isn’t enough. Kindness and community service needs to produce observable change.

“Community-based organizations need to be characterized by
excellence and uncompromising professionalism…
because the people we serve deserve the very best.”

The local community services sector was born out of a desire to respond to the less fortunate in an era when very few social services existed. Organizations, like the one where I serve, were funded by the well-to-do in order to provide some very rudimentary emergency help people who were living on the margins. By the middle of the 20th century Canadian governments began to provide many social services that we now take for granted. However, there are still people who suffer from lack of access to basics like shelter, food and healthcare. Many local community organizations continue to fill an important gap for people who fall through the cracks.

As we head into the next few decades of the 21st Century there are two distinct areas of reinvention that all community organizations, large and small, need to explore.

The first is the pursuit of uncompromising operational excellence. Community organizations can no longer offer substandard or patchwork services. Wait, aren’t community non-profits allowed to be just a little bit sloppy? Why would we expect organizations that are run by underpaid people or volunteers to be operationally excellent? Isn’t being good-hearted what charity is all about? The truth is that second best was never good enough. We might have developed a tolerance for operational mediocrity because we figured that excellence wasn’t achievable. Community-based organizations need to be characterized by excellence and uncompromising professionalism. Why?  Because the people we serve deserve the very best. Organizations that do not currently embrace a culture of excellence are going to need to change… and quickly!

The second area is the establishment of robust value-added partnerships. The local community sector has traditionally consisted of disparate organizations that function solo. There has been minimal discernible progress in establishing coherent partnerships that serve end users effectively. Furthermore, the overwhelming majority of Canadian community-based charities have unrestricted annual revenues of less than $2 million. The result is that their capacity is limited. When running on a tight annual budget, a community organization is seldom well positioned to plan for the long term. Consequently, there is a tendency to function in the here and now, working in “the middle of the problem” rather than “on the problem”.

There is nothing wrong with small organizations. Small, targeted efforts can be very effective. Nonetheless, it takes stable funding and robust external partnerships to build the capacity that sustains programs and services at a scale that produces actual outcomes. It will be essential for narrowly focused community organizations to nurture strong partnerships with funders, government agencies, healthcare providers or universities to promote a continuum of services. Operating solo is unlikely to prove successful.

“Today’s growing and complex social challenges can’t be fixed
via yesterday’s assumptions or with yesterday’s approaches.”

It can be very challenging to implement change in an community ecosystem that that has experienced very little reason to change for over 50 years.  However, the “burning platform” is the reality that today’s growing and complex social challenges can’t be fixed via yesterday’s assumptions or with yesterday’s approaches. Furthermore, the relevance and effectiveness of underperforming community organizations will be called into question if they fail to reinvent themselves.

Sam Watts serves as the CEO of Welcome Hall Mission  He serves on several non-profit boards and is an appointed member of the National Housing Council of Canada.  He is the author of Good Work…Done Better