Charting a new Course: Evolving the Sector


I have written on this topic before in this space and I've touched on aspects of it in the many speeches that I have given. And over the past two to three years there has been at least one workshop or seminar on a similar topic at the annual OCASI's Executive Directors' Forum or Professional Development Conferences. Given the currency of the topic, I feel it's worth re-airing.

The Sector and agencies' sustainability, new funding or revenue tools, social enterprises, social bonds, the enduring role of government in funding the public good, etc. are all topics that have increasingly occupied the conversations and imagination of Ontario's and Canada's non-profit sector. Particularly for community-based human service organizations including those in the immigrant and refugee-serving sector there is need for a new business model, for evolving the sector so that it can optimize its strengths while being responsive to the increasingly complex needs of the beneficiaries of its services is pressingly important.

A conversation that began with OCASI's president and a colleague who is a principal in Pathways to Prosperity (P2P) has evolved into a national dialogue on the future of the sector. The dialogue is broad and deep. In an attempt to formalize the discussion, these two colleagues formulated a rationale that said in part:

The Agency of the Future project is designed to help the sector chart a more pro-active and strategic course. The project's premise is that agencies and umbrella associations need to open up new territory in place of defending existing turf. This will entail re-conceptualizing the opportunity landscape facing the sector and bolstering its capacity to identify and seize opportunities. The aim is to win new clients and fend off competitors. This will require a focus on excellence and innovation in areas where the sector enjoys a strategic advantage. The way forward implicates both individual agencies and umbrella associations. It also implicates government in that there exists a shared interest by the sector and government in bolstering the capacity of settlement agencies in those areas where they enjoy a comparative advantage over other organizations.

This rationale is the opening statement of a working document that outlines a path forward for reimagining the sector. And it has its believers and its detractors. The believers are adamant that significant change- a revolutionary change in the thinking and ways of doing business in the sector is crucial if the immigrant and refugee sector is to remain relevant and sustainable. They (and OCASI is an author of the document) incorporate business language and concepts that speak of risks, competition and customers The detractors on the other hand have a sense that this “new” thinking compromises the raison d'etre of the sector. They argue that a focus on finance, on new business models is incompatible with considerations of social justice, of anti-oppression and of work towards building an inclusive society. They reject the rationale outlined above and have questioned on the national stage, OCASI's engagement and leadership in this dialogue and the emerging project.

I have been cautioned about airing this disagreement in this space. But this space is informally known at the Council as the ED Rant. And I believe that in our thirty-fifth year of excellence in advocacy, in sector development, in working towards a just society where refugees and immigrants are fully included, we're mature and sophisticated enough as a membership to have our debates and disagreements out in the open.

While I understand (and sympathise for the most part) with the concerns of those who have spoken out against this new project, I can't help but vigorously voice my disagreement with the idea that a social justice agenda is incompatible with an agenda of organizational and sector financial sustainability. And while I will own that some of the language used in the first iteration of the working document was problematic (or could be read as offensive and has subsequently been changed), this in itself does not delegitimize the important ideas and concepts that have been put forward for debate and discussion. To have the political and social justice bona fides of the Council and of sector leadership that are in support of having this dialogue on sector renewal questioned is troubling.

There is space and room for debate. And many who describe themselves in the detractors' corner have raised some legitimate concerns. They've asked whether we're allowing government to abdicate their responsibility for the social and public good. They've voiced concerns about attention of agencies being moved from the critical issues of service excellence, to fundraising or social enterprises. They've questioned the wisdom of sitting at the table with those who may not share the sector's political or ethical framework. All of these issues should be debated. But the conversations should not be derailed by those who resort to attempts of political shaming.

OCASI as Canada's largest umbrella Council for agencies working with immigrants and refugees have a responsibility to lead difficult discussions. To work hand in hand with sister umbrellas and others across the country who are concerned with the sector's ability to respond to emerging and increasingly complex needs of immigrants and refugees; to building a just society; and who know that the environment-politically, economically and structurally is changing and we must change with it or lose relevance.

The Council will provide an opportunity for further discussion on this project of creating the agency/sector of the future at the Executive Directors' Forum later this month. We encourage vigorous debate. We want ideas about what this vision should be and how we should go about creating it. This project belongs to the sector. And the sector's vision is what will prevail.