photo of Brad OdsenThe Charitable Dilemma – Part 4

[In this, the fourth of a series of commentaries, Brad Odsen, Executive Director of the John Howard Society of Alberta continues his examination of issues impacting charitable organizations across Canada, with particular relevance to those in the human services business, including the John Howard Societies in Alberta.]

"There are two critical questions that have to be answered:

  1. Do we want our community-based voluntary organizations to die an agonizingly slow death, or do we want them to thrive? and
  2. If we want them to thrive and grow, what needs to be done to reverse the course we are presently on?"

This is how I concluded The Charitable Dilemma – Part 3, published in The Reporter last Spring. So now let's examine this more closely.

The answer to the first question is straightforward: Of course, we do not want our community organizations to die an agonizingly slow death, and we do want them to thrive and grow. So why ask such a (rhetorical) question?

Quite simply, to highlight the fact that many of the current funding policies and practices of provincial and federal government departments and quasi-government Commissions and Boards, as well as most Foundations, public and private, are having the very effect that is contrary to that which we, and they, all desire.

How can that trend be reversed?

The fact is, most funders, particularly in government (at least at the administrative level) already do recognize this. It is the policy-makers who either do not recognize the effect their policies are having or, as is more likely the case, perceive the potential risks of a supportive funding model as being so great that they are unwilling to adopt it.

What are the risks? First, there's the apparent risk that once you start funding the operation of a community agency for its core operation you will be obliged (at least morally) to continue that funding. And it's certainly true that this would be the case – but is that really a "risk"? The actual risk may well be that the organization is unable to continue to function. An important service to the community will either be lost altogether, or government will have to step in and start providing it – typically at significantly greater cost, and at a greater distance from the community. Efficiency and effectiveness decline, costs go up and this, in reality, is a far more detrimental result than meaningful operational support for worthy community agencies.

Second there is the issue of public accountability that underlies the policies of government (and other funders). But the questions in this regard that really need to be asked are, "Was the money well spent? That is, has the community benefited from the work of this Agency?"

If it can be acknowledged that the work done by an agency in the community benefits the community, then the prima facie case for "money well spent" is made out.

More in the next Issue of The Reporter.

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ISSN 1192-4381