What are the key issues facing the vitality of the voluntary sector in Canada?
If asked you would undoubtedly have strong opinions. If you asked others, you’d get a diversity of opinions, insights and ideas. If you were looking for evidence-based research to help your answer, you could probably rhyme off a few think-tanks, academics and websites where you know you could find some of that information. But you’d likely find as much diversity there as you did when you asked your peers. Could you find the definitive source? Or are we missing something?
Enter the Mowat Centre’s Not-for-profit Research Hub. This hub was recently established to provide evidence-based research and analysis on structural, foundational, and systemic issues facing the voluntary sector in Canada. Working with strategic partners like the Ontario Nonprofit Network, it will be looking for solutions to the issues and challenges that impact our sector
I spoke with Elizabeth McIsaac, Executive Researcher at Mowat, to find out more about the project, what its goals are, and how we can participate.
According to Elizabeth: “We’re going to be looking at the critical issues that are impacting the not-for-profit sector and crafting a research agenda to look at evidence-based research to support a stronger, more vital sector. In plain language, this means we’re going to look at questions like: how can we better understand the sector’s economic and social impact? What are the financial tools and strategies that will make the sector stronger? How can the sector become a stronger voice in shaping policy? What are the new approaches, and innovations to solving common challenges facing the sector? And how can we document and understand these ideas and trends and get that information back out into the sector?”
Mowat has been talking to a variety of voluntary sector representatives. As a first step, it is conducting an environmental scan of current nonprofit sector research, including academic and community-based research. This will become a baseline and a place for it to understand where its research can add value. Mowat is looking at our sector in its broadest definition, “the voluntary sector writ large:” from nonprofits to charities, service-based human service organizations to cause-based advocacy groups; from the formally funded to the grassroots, volunteer-driven start-ups run out of someone’s basement; from organizations that have provided decades of service to the new cadre of social entrepreneurs.
As the hub crafts its research agenda, it will be “convening partners and stakeholders to ensure that the ideas we put forward are relevant, resonate with the sector and can be adapted to inform strong public policy going forward.”
The Research Hub is funded in part by the Ontario Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration. Elizabeth believes that this support “is part of a larger investment in the capacity of the sector… a signal from the province of their commitment to strengthen the sector itself, and to strengthen the partnership that exists between the public and the not-for-profit sector. Our challenge and ambition is to advance ideas and recommendations for policy solutions that will contribute to a strengthened relationship and to a stronger sector.”
You might be wondering, why Mowat? Mowat is considered a thought-leader in public policy in Ontario. In 2011, it released the study Strengthening the Third Pillar of the Canadian Union: An Intergovernmental Agenda for Canada’s Charities and Non-Profits which took a high-level view of the regulatory and legislative issues impacting the sector. Partnering with the ONN, the Mowat Research Hub is also supported by the Metcalf Foundation, The Atkinson Charitable Foundation, United Way of Toronto and Maytree.
Will Mowat succeed in moving the sector forward in a cohesive direction to address the myriad of issues facing us? Will we ultimately create the strong sector voice needed at the policy level? Clearly, it’s too soon to tell. But the idea is a good one. The approach (talking with, convening the sector) is the right one.
One project alone can’t revitalize the voluntary sector or even create a consensus on what needs to be done. A public policy approach can ensure that informed change might come from our funders. However, that’s only one part of the puzzle. Mowat’s discussion and consulting/convening approach may just get us talking more actively to each other. Will Mowat succeed in starting and facilitating a discussion not just with sector leaders, funders and academics, but also with practitioners, and, ultimately, among all these groups? If so, perhaps we’ll see the sector’s valuable tacit and practical knowledge more actively define the kind of sector we all know we can have.
A call has already gone out to the sector through the ONN asking for input (PDF). They’re interested in getting your knowledge and expertise into their project, into their thinking. There is a wealth of insight, information, experience and passion in the nonprofit sector. Make sure your voice is heard.
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