Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of November 20, 2000
Activist stresses role of nonprofits
Forgotten sector of economy threatened by corporate mindset
By RAMON GONZALEZ
WCR Staff Writer
The biggest risk to the nonprofit sector is "global corporate capitalism," warns Martin Garber-Conrad, head of a leading Edmonton nonprofit group.
"I think the risk comes from a mindset that begins to see capitalism (as being) the only way in which we visualize the world and society and community," the director of the Edmonton City Centre Church Corporation said at a recent lunch hour lecture.
Garber-Conrad spoke Nov. 7 about the role of the nonprofit sector in the new economy at Expressionz Cafe at 118th Avenue and 92nd Street. Some 20 people attended his talk.
As a result of the capitalist mindset prevalent in today's society, nonprofit groups are being pushed to act with "entrepreneurial spirit," focusing primarily on financial accountability and the bottom line, he said. They are being asked to do strategic planning and to strive for sustainability, which means becoming self-supported and without relying on government funds.
Garber-Conrad said this model doesn't work in the nonprofit sector because the sector deals mainly with social problems that are increasing constantly.
"So if you ask for accountability from the nonprofit sector one answer is 'What you are doing isn't working because there are more poor people than there were when you started,'" he said.
"Of course the reason is that the government continues to create poor people. We get some people in the front door being well fed and then they are sort of ushered out the back door by larger changes (such as lay offs, low wages and low welfare rates)."
Added Garber-Conrad: "As a sector we get to deal with a tiny little piece of it but then we are asked to be accountable for the whole thing."
The nonprofit sector includes 78,000 registered charities in Canada alone, with more than 1,500 in Edmonton, and perhaps another 100,000 other organizations that aren't registered charities.
The registered charities have more than $90 billion in annual expenditures and more than $100 billion in assets.
"In terms of economic size, the nonprofit sector is larger than the entire economy of British Columbia, much larger than the transportation industry in Canada and six times larger than the value of all crops and livestock in Canada," Garber-Conrad pointed out.
"And yet the non-profit sector (which represents nine to 13 per cent of the GNP) is not represented in any formal way around the cabinet table or in national government."
According to Garber-Conrad, nine per cent of all employees in Canada work in the nonprofit sector and there are several times that many volunteers, who contribute the equivalent of 600,000 full time jobs.
"Despite all this, the non-profit sector is largely invisible," he lamented. "And part of the invisibility is a genuine ignorance about the sector, about the nature of it, about the reality - economic and otherwise."
People tend to think of the nonprofit sector as providing little bits of extras, kind of filling in the gaps that the private sector or the government can't quite manage to fill, Garber-Conrad said. It isn't so.
"The non-profit sector performs essential work for all Canadians," he said. "Think about hospitals and clinics that care for the sick, think about universities and schools that educate the young, think about galleries and museums to preserve and promote arts and culture and all the social service organizations that care for the disabled, the destitute and the desperate."
This sector has a close relationship with government, he said, noting that "wholly 60 per cent of the revenue of the nonprofit sector comes from government." Corporate donations are "entirely irrelevant to the nonprofit sector" because they never exceed one per cent of corporate profits.
At the top end of the nonprofit spectrum are hospitals and universities, many of which are quasi-governmental organizations because of the control the government has over their budgets. They eat up nearly half of the revenues and expenditures of the whole sector, even though they represent only a few thousand organizations.
Of the 25 largest charities in Canada, only one looks anything like what we think of when we think of nonprofit organizations. That's the Red Cross, which after the tainted blood scandal became more like a government department, he said.
The seventh largest registered charity in Canada is the Edmonton Public School District. Next are churches and congregations, which represent nearly a third of the nonprofit sector, although "I don't think they perceive themselves as part of the nonprofit sector."
At the lower end of the spectrum are about 40,000 registered charities "that I think we generally think of as being part of the nonprofit sector."
These organizations employ hundreds of thousands of people, have hundreds of thousands of volunteers and "do an awful lot of important work in the community," Garber-Conrad said.
They do a great deal of contract work for government, which provides a significant portion of their income.
Contrary to what most people think, "the nonprofit sector has been intimately involved with the government from day one," noted Garber-Conrad.
"So the myth that somehow the nonprofit sector was voluntary and didn't get involved with the government as much it does now is largely false."
In Victorian England there was a clear line between who the charitable sector worked with and who the government worked with. The worthy poor were cared for by charities. The unworthy poor were looked after by the government.
Today in Alberta "it's almost exactly the opposite or the trend seems to be in that direction," Garber-Conrad noted.
"The government is very interested in defining who is worthy of public assistance and has been leaving those folks who don't qualify for, say, supports for independence or employment insurance or health care largely to fend for themselves and more or less at the mercy of the private charitable sector."
Over the past 20 or 30 years there has been a dramatic proliferation in the number of registered charities and nonprofit organizations.
"Those 80,000 registered charities are continuing to grow," Garber-Conrad said. "Nearly 5,000 applications are received every year by Revenue Canada for charitable status. And in the last few years roughly 3,500 of those are being approved every year."
This means that the relatively static size of the pie occupied by the nonprofit sector "is getting cut up into increasingly small pieces."
The road ahead is full of challenges for the nonprofit sector, Garber Conrad said, noting that while government funding is not decreasing, " the number of people that need help is growing and has grown throughout the 1990s."
Garber-Conrad predicted that the nonprofit sector will neither rise up to save the world nor wither away in the face of globalized corporate capitalism.
"(But) the sector is old and resilient and it will endure," he said. "It will continue to make crucial contributions to society and get little or no credit for it. It may even thrive."