photo of Brad OdsenThe Charitable Dilemma – Part 5

[In this, the fifth 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.]


“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.”

But of course, one of the issues that continually arises is that of funders being “taken to task”, primarily in the mass media, for providing funding that in the opinion of some is either “inappropriate” or even though the organization/cause may be “appropriate”, in the opinion of some, the use(s) to which some of that funding has been put is “inappropriate”.

We must be clear that all such opinions are “value judgments” and, as such may well not reflect views that are shared by all, nor do such typically arise within the larger context of the overall “value” that certain activities may bring to the community. Prime examples of this can be found in the frequent debates over the appropriateness of funding certain artistic endeavours, where the fundamental issue of the “ value” that artistic endeavours, per se, add to the community, is most often ignored.

Certainly however, we can all agree that, from time to time, a charitable organization (or at least the current directors or managers thereof) will be found to have used funds in a way that it is very difficult to link with “providing service to the community”. When such instances do arise, they are a stain on the reputation of every single charitable organization in the country. And I believe that it has had a tremendous impact on the movement that funders have made to, in many instances, “ micro-managing” the use of funds provided to charitable organizations. And by that I mean, the list of restrictions on uses of funds, the budgeting detail frequently required, and the frequency and detail of reporting required of the organization’s expenditures.

This issue has been addressed in previous Issues of The Reporter, and it bears reiterating that charities across Canada are virtually unanimous in their experience that this is a tremendous drain on limited administrative resources, not to mention frequently severely limiting their ability to direct funds to those areas within the organization where they are most needed.

There are well over 100,000 charitable organizations registered in Canada (with the Canada Revenue Agency), and nobody really knows how many more unregistered organizations, associations, and community groups are “out there” doing good work making their communities a better place for all. And yet, because of the acknowledged misdeeds of (perhaps) 1 or 2 organizations a year, a rate so miniscule as to be statistically “non-existent”, many funders, particularly governments, have reacted in a manner that has had, and continues to have, an enormous impact on the health of the charitable sector.

As has been said before in this series, the John Howard Society of Alberta is extremely fortunate in that it receives financial support from the Alberta Government, the Alberta Law Foundation, and the Government of Canada (through the John Howard Society of Canada) all in a form that is both on-going, and relatively restriction-free. This is a rarity in the charitable sector, at least insofar as community organizations are concerned.

And this provides an example of the kind of “base” funding that all worthwhile community agencies need to be assured of if they are going to be able to thrive and grow.

But more than this is needed from these funding sources – again, particularly government. It depends on the organization of course, but staff members of many community organizations spend a considerable amount of their time during the working day meeting with government staff to work with government in improving the community. The Alberta government, for example, calls this “partnering” with the community, and it is a basic element of the provincial and departmental Business Plans. That the Alberta Government is committed to partnering with community is commendable, but it is, at the present time, a very unequal partnership. It’s unequal because the staff from the community organizations are providing an extremely valuable service to the government, but the organizations are not being compensated for this “added value”.

The plain fact is, if government engaged private consultants to provide the insight into community that the staff of community agencies regularly provide, the invoices would be for hundreds of thousands of dollars annually.

So here is one way that governments can justifiably “pay” for services rendered by community agencies – acknowledge the value of the “partnership”, and compensate the organization accordingly. And remember, this is in addition to the “base” funding I mentioned earlier, because it is this base funding that is required to ensure there are these organizations in existence with which to partner.