Publications, opinions, and speeches


Re-thinking how we make change happen

Published on 25/11/2014

I have very recently returned to Maytree with the exciting and challenging task of re-focusing our work on poverty reduction. This will mean finding answers to a complex social problem, and we know that requires meaningful partnerships and collaborations across sectors. Tapping the expertise, resources and relationships of each sector is essential in finding solutions to difficult and systemic challenges like reducing poverty.

When private, public and community sectors come to the table to do this work, they must do so with the capacity to engage and be their best. In the work of poverty reduction, the community sector is not only needed at the table, but has a leadership role to play; it is both their mission and their role as community stewards.

Having spent the last two and a half years at the Mowat Centre looking at public policy issues related to strengthening the broader not-for-profit sector, I am mindful of the challenges that the sector faces today. During that time, we examined key issues impacting the not-for-profit sector. Topping the list was the need for the sector to tell its story of impact. Another key issue we identified was the importance of capacity: How organizations can deliver on their mission and make change happen by having the right people and leadership in place.

The issue of capacity, human capital and leadership became the focus of a study Mowat completed for the Ontario Nonprofit Network (ONN). The survey of more than 800 senior leaders of not-for-profits across Ontario explored a long list of questions related to the people needed to do the work of the sector.

What we learned said a lot about capacity and innovation.

The sector has an uphill job ahead in competing to find and keep talent. We are challenged with lower wages, low levels of job security, and often limited career paths.

There are gaps in the skills and competencies needed to be innovative and successful in a rapidly changing environment. Priorities identified included skills in measuring and demonstrating outcomes; generating earned income through social entrepreneurship; and using technology effectively.

We were told that the sector struggles with planning for succession and creating leadership opportunities for emerging leaders. Finally, we learned that we are not valuing diversity enough as a critical contributor to the sector’s long-term success.

Much of this will not come as a surprise to those in the sector. But the survey confirmed that these pressures are being felt across organizations of different sizes, subsectors, and locations.

When we asked who in the organization was responsible for a wide range of management and operational tasks, more than half of respondents identified executive directors as having primary responsibility for the following: government relations (83%), collaborations and partnerships (82%), engaging community stakeholders (78%), risk management (77%), monitoring and evaluation (74%), advocacy (73%), public relations (72%), internal communications (69%), human resource management (68%), governance (66%), proposal and grant writing (66%), financial management (61%), marketing (54%), and fundraising (54%).

That’s a lot of hats for one person to wear. Leaders are being stretched and their energy diverted away from mission. When we consider that the vast majority of not-for-profits in Ontario have fewer than 10 employees, the argument that leaders simply need to delegate better does not hold water.

As I think about the capacity of the sector and its role in being an effective leader in finding solutions to complex problems, I come back to a key finding of the study – the need for a fundamental re-think about the current model of leadership: Are we doing the right things the right way? Can the structures in place do a better job of supporting executive directors and other senior leaders to be leaders in their organizations and in their communities?

And so we should look more closely at how some organizations are working differently. One promising approach may be in shared platforms. In such an arrangement, a platform organization takes care of the governance functions, as well as most of the human resources, finance and administrative work that can detract leaders from their mission and the communities they serve. Some of the initial shared platform implementations have already achieved great success and impact in their communities.

I believe there are more ways to think about providing platforms that support the work of the sector in our communities and cities. From shared ideas of change (policy) to shared messages and stories (communications), there are enormous possibilities for working together more strategically and more effectively.

As a sector, we need to stretch our imagination about how to work and collaborate differently. Where we are building a common vision, we have to be both more pragmatic and creative about how we work. And this will mean putting aside organizational egos, understanding the structures and incentives that encourage competition and isolation, and focusing instead on the changes we can make together.

As Maytree begins its process of exploring a renewed focus on poverty, we are mindful of these challenges, and we see an opportunity to work with and support the leaders and movements that make change happen.


Non-profit sector


As a sector, we need to put aside organizational egos, understand the structures and incentives that encourage competition and isolation, and focus instead on the changes we can make together.