Time to Engage – takeaways from ONN’s 2015 Conference: Nonprofit Driven

This year’s Ontario Nonprofit Network (ONN) conference focused on opportunities forParliament_clock Policy, Leadership and Action. Three speakers issued challenges to the sector and instilled a sense of optimism about the role non-profits can play in Canada’s democracy. The federal election outcome certainly contributed to that optimism – it’s time to engage!

Rick Cohen, national correspondent with the Nonprofit Quarterly, delivered the conference’s opening keynote speech. Based on his observations south of the border he suggested that nonprofit sector organizations share a common mission: strengthening democracy. Nonprofit agencies closely connected to different communities are well-positioned to give voice to their communities and amplify their challenges and interests. Cohen noted that in the absence of rapid responses to community issues from organizations, social movements like Black Lives Matter have stepped in.

Engagement_peopleJohn Wright, Senior VP and Managing Director at Ipsos, helped participants consider the implications of the new Liberal majority government under the leadership of Prime Minister-designate Justin Trudeau. He highlighted messages Trudeau relayed in his first post-election media conference where he emphasized a commitment to greater openness and transparency, and to changing the ‘tone’ in government. Throughout the campaign, and in the post-election period, Trudeau has indicated he welcomes greater public engagement in government. Wright expects the ‘chill’ many non-profits experienced under the Harper government to change. He suggested non-profit leaders should take Trudeau up on his offer by reaching out to new MPs and offering to assist them in getting up to speed on issues. Wright reinforced that organizations still need to stay in touch with non-Liberals over the next few years.

Professor Henry Mintzberg closed the session on a somewhat less upbeat tone. He shared the essence of his most recent publication, “Rebalancing Society – Radical renewal beyond left, right and center”, a topic he’s been mulling over since 1991. Mintzberg suggested a better balance between the public, private and ‘plural’ (his proposed term for organizations in the third or civil society sectors) sectors is needed. Those in the private sector that benefit most from imbalance, although well-organized compared to those in the plural sector, are unlikely to implement the kinds of broad systemic solutions required. In contrast, those in the plural sector who are closest to citizens are in the best position to work across sectors to restore balance and fix broken democratic processes. He challenged the non-profit sector to work collectively to address the growing imbalance in Canadian society.









Sandi Trillo, VISION Management Services

Recommended resources and references

Forces for Good (2012): Authors Leslie R. Crutchfield and Heather McLeod Grant have identified 6 practices high impact non-profit organizations use to achieve extraordinary results. One includes advocating AND serving. The practices reflect their finding that greatness includes working outside the boundaries of an organization – with government, business, individuals and nonprofit networks.

Maclean’s interactive Visualization of Canada’s 42nd Parliament: http://www.macleans.ca/shape-of-the-house/

Rebalancing Society – Radical renewal beyond left, right and center (2015) (PDF). Free download.

Samara-ONN Infographic (PDF): an illustration of how a broken democracy impacts communities and how non-profits have a role to play as bridge between communities and government to create a more vibrant democracy.

Shifting the Non-profit Sector Narrative

I attended the Ontario Non-profit Network’s (ONN) 2012 Conference ‘Policy to Practice’ in late September. Tonya Surman of ONN updated participants on the Network’s work in relation to five policy priorities identified 3 years ago*. ONN is playing an important role in changing the narrative about the sector and shifting the relationship between the sector and the Ontario government.

We can’t underestimate the power of language to shift perspectives. A number of speakers commented on the disservice we do when we define the sector by what it’s not – i.e. ‘not-for-profit’, ‘non-governmental’. Tonya Surman highlighted some of ONN’s efforts to put the sector on a more equal footing with government by redefining the sector as: “solution innovators”, “community assets”, “community stewards”.

MPP Charles Sousa, from the Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration offered opening remarks that reflected greater government appreciation for the sector – he was well-informed about the size of the sector (e.g. representing $50 billion and 15% of jobs) and spoke of the sector as a ‘third pillar’ supporting Ontario’s society, on the front lines of public service. Assistant Deputy Minister Katherine Hewson spoke about how the provincial government’s OPEN for Business Program, which was initially designed to make government easier and more responsive to business and put clients at the centre of services, was expanded to include the non-profit sector. She praised ONN’s attitude of collaboration and interest in working together with government to find solutions.


Questions for leaders:

  • Do the words you use when you talk about your work emphasize solutions and assets, or deficits?
  • Do you offer compelling solutions when engaging with government partners?

*ONN priorities

  1. Ontario Not-for-Profit Corporations Act – influencing the content of the Act (note: conversations continue as proclamation has been delayed until July 1, 2013)
  2. Sale of Surplus Public Lands – expanding the sector’s ability to express interest in the purchase of public lands before they go on the wider market
  3. Infrastructure Ontario’s Loan Program – gaining access to government’s low rate capital financing for non-profit organizations (NPOs)
  4. Police Record Checks Process – seeking greater clarity around process requirements to lessen the burden on NPOs
  5. Procurement and Vendor of Record – gaining access to public procurement program discounts for NPOs