Not for Profit … Not so Much

The Practice Collection

A question I like to ask in my storytelling seminars asks, is it possible to change a big narrative…a big story.” Can we change a story that many of us have accepted as “the way it is” for a long time?

I give the example of a talk I gave in Toronto a few years ago now in which I asked, “Do cities have a grounding story?” So I asked the audience to give me their city of Toronto’s storylines. I heard diversity, cool, artistic, neighborhoods, international, progressive and so on …

I then mentioned that I was from Calgary and could they give me a few storylines about my city? Back came the predictable…conservative, redneck, individualistic, materialistic, and rough around the edges.

“Well then, I roared, give us back our mayor!”

You may remember, at the time, Toronto had Mayor Rob Ford, a classic icon of the crazy side of the conservative, redneck narrative and we had a little brown Muslim Mayor who represented every aspect of open, cool, diverse and artsy. It would appear that simply with the election of a couple of mayors the town stories would seem to be changing…I know we in Calgary sure feel that way. So given this, how big a story could we change? Could countries change, religions or economic zones?

I would like to go for broke here and imagine changing the story of a whole economic sector here in Canada. Most agree that there are fundamentally three economic zones in our country…the private sector, the public sector and the crudely named not for profit sector (also sometimes called NGO’s or non government agencies.)

The private sector representing the market economy is the golden child of western economies. It’s longstanding narrative is that it can do very little wrong as it goes about creating wealth, jobs and business in general. Players in that economy are often described as hard working, productive and essential to the prevailing free enterprise system.

Fair enough …

The public sector represents something completely different with the role and responsibility of providing support, service and growth to our democratic process and public institutions. Players in this sector of the economy have not been as fortunate in their public identity and have often been described as non-productive, entitled and sometimes after a few beers you may hear even worse.

So fair enough again, I suppose. I personally have never drunk enough beer to see nurses, policemen and environmental scientists through such a lens but fill your boots.

The big theme and focus of this essay, however, will be on the third rail sector of our economy, the one with the unfortunate moniker of “not for profit” sector. This sector represents, well frankly, I would argue that it represents the only sector that really does any real front line work these days. They find jobs and shelter for immigrants, work with the homeless, the sick, the hurt, the addicted, the youth, the seniors, the arts … you get the picture.

The players in this sector are still seen much as we saw them two hundred years ago…those lovely souls who looked after these poor folks and more important, they have always done it for little or nothing … They are generally seen as hard working, valuable and skilled but more important, cheap and not really worth a living wage.

Here is what happened over time …

Most of the messy stuff needing doing in our society has not really held much profit or gain attached so the private sector never had to unload it … they just never felt obliged to take it on in the first place.

In the public sector, the federal public service has always had a huge mandate for messy stuff but has managed over the past hundred years to off-load a good portion of the delivery side to the provinces.

The provinces were quick learners and followed suit, devolving much of their messy front line deliveries to the cities and municipalities.

These local governments weren’t born yesterday and started looking around for some organizations unencumbered by union wages, benefits and overly restrictive regulations. They could do this messy work without inflicting more hurt on those burdoned taxpayers. By the way, when did they finally convince us that we were not citizens with responsibilities, but taxpayers with burdens? I think it may have been in the eighties.

So now we have the big growth of a new sector called the not for profit sector … nothing but blue skies ahead for this bunch…lots and lots to be done and not a lot of resources to do it.

By the way, who was the genius that named this thing? Imagine the prestige of giving organizations in our society a name based in the negative.

The not for fun kids club
The not so interesting book club
The not so appetizing café.
My point … we don’t name our kids Adolph anymore, but we name a whole sector of our economy Adolph and think nothing of it. In fact it’s quite handy …

It means we don’t have to pay them much
It means those of us in the public sectors can be comfortable and safe in our cubicles with union scale and we don’t have to get our hands messy with those nasty front line clients.
It gives us a handy group to blame when things go south.
It is a pretty sweet training ground for the rest us as we can come in and poach their brightest and best after they have done all the investments in training. Lets not dwell on the fact that they don’t actually have any training budgets, not our problem.
Frankly, those of us in the public and private sectors love it when they come to us, cap in hand, for help. It’s our dirty little secret, but we kind of like having someone kiss up a little for our money and we feel “oh so charitable and good” after it’s over.
Ok now I am just sounding mean but really, would I see a future for one of my grandkids in this sector? I wish I could. I can see they all have the heart for this sort of work but I also would like them looking forward to a working wage for doing such good work. This is the sector where real good work is being done but should not this sector, as the other two, have the same respect and standing in our society as the others?

So I would argue, perhaps it is time for a little rebellion here…

First the name has to go … right now!

The social enterprise movement has a nice ring to it but may be tied a little too tight to profit and loss. I favor the public benefit sector as a name as it is precisely where all our investments, policies and energies hit the actual front line … the benefit.

Secondly, lets stop breeding new organizations in this sector like Canmore rabbits. I was in a community recently (not that big) that had over two hundred not for profits, whoops … public benefit organizations.

Two hundred!

The private sector charitable giving was becoming more like a lottery. The public sector had these folks fighting each other for grants like cats in a Denny’s dumpster.

And every one of these organizations, of course, needs a CEO, a finance officer, a funding development officer and all sorts of other bureaucratic functionaries to keep up with the paper work demanded by the private and public sector accountability experts before signing off these poor folks cheques.

Do we really need a badminton organization, a minor hockey organization and a speed skating organization each with a full board of directors in our towns?

What if two hundred became ten? We could have a Sports and Recreation Society, a Wellness Institute, an Economic Association, a Arts Council and so on. You still get to have your little badminton group but perhaps all you need to do is play, make a schedule and order a beer keg at the end of the season … not run another damn organization.

Thirdly, try fighting for your rights … where the hell are the unions, the activists and the regular folks who use and need, daily, every one of these services for their families, their neighbors and their fellow citizens. Lets imagine we closed them all for a week … would there then be any sense that this sector of the economy is as valuable as the other two or not?

If the folks in this sector are content to be just the training wheels on the two-wheeler economic zone or actually be a two-wheeler economic zone, then that’s all you will ever be.

All that being said, I want to say, to those of you who are today and every day helping a cancer patient, mentoring an angry youth, teaching a prisoner, keeping someone’s addictive son alive or feeding a schizophrenic on the street, thank you, thank you, thank you.

You know, for the messy stuff.