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The New Agenda – Part Two

January 6, 2021
Hilary Pearson

The nonprofit sector in Canada went through a difficult year in 2020, as noted in Part One of this blog. What about 2021? We don’t want to recreate the past, just in a better version. If that’s true, if we want to innovate for a very challenging next decade, what’s our new agenda?  

The answer depends in part on what we think about the future. I have no better crystal ball than anyone else. Forecasts are notoriously tricky. Sometimes they are just expressions of what the forecaster would like to happen, not a rigorously considered assessment of what could happen, good or bad. Rather than a forecast, a new agenda might emerge from hard thinking about future drivers and tensions. Drivers are forces that are most likely to shape the choices and needs of organizations. Tensions are the stresses most likely to be experienced as organizations try to cope with the drivers. The agenda is set from the answers to questions that organizations ask themselves as they consider these drivers and tensions.

Here (in my opinion) are the drivers that could shape the choices of the social good sector in 2021. Different organizations will experience the pressure of these drivers differently. But they will be important whether you are a philanthropic funder or a nonprofit working in the social good space:

  • The acceleration of digital – the pandemic has shown the importance of having access to digital tools and managing digital data more successfully
  • The importance of place – again, the pandemic has focused us on geographic communities and spaces
  • The energy for collective action – community-wide or complex needs call for more effective collective work and funding.
  • The push for equity – the movement for inclusion of diverse voices/perspectives and addressing systemic racism cannot be denied or ignored.
  • The leadership deficit – organizations coped better with the pandemic if their leaders had the skills and necessary support; burnout is a huge risk.
  • The youth gap – young people have the ideas and tools to innovate for their stake in the future; but they need more ladders.
  • The scrutiny of the public – social media platforms are forcing more proactive disclosure and communication.

As social good organizations consider the impact of these drivers on their strategies, they also face some important tensions or contradictions. Some of these are more specific to funders. But they are important to the recipients of philanthropic funding too:

  • Investing in core versus expanding programs
  • Focusing on short term outcomes and KPIs versus long-term social impact
  • Long term capital building versus short term expenditure maximizing
  • Innovation versus incrementalism
  • Leading/controlling versus following/collaborating

Different organizations are going to ask different questions as they consider these drivers and tensions. So, I will speculate only on a possible agenda for the social good sector as a whole. What questions should we ask to help us shape a sector-wide agenda coming out of the pandemic?

  • How do we strengthen infrastructure and tools for collective action at the local level? How do we build on the locally driven collective funds and initiatives coming out of the pandemic, which were in many cases managed by the infrastructure supplied through community foundations, United Ways, YM/YWCAs and other umbrella coalitions?
  • How do we reconsider our funding practices and make them permanently flexible, responsive and more adaptable to context?
  • How do we build capacity to develop data strategies, acquire digital capabilities and share data to map landscapes and build evidence for policy and program design?
  • What do we need to do to create new leadership pipelines and ladders, and more effective systems of governance?
  • How do we educate ourselves, develop awareness of bias, and change systems that embed racism and exclusion?
  • How do we build stronger financial models that permit us to access more capital, engage in talent and tools investments, and stop starving ourselves?
  • How do we learn better, innovate better, get better feedback, engage in more participatory program design?

Thinking about these questions is tough. Answering them through action is even tougher, to be honest. This is going to test our creativity and our willingness to let go of certainties. If this is a new agenda for the sector, we have to think about how we push past the immediate emergency. There is great pressure to stay focused on the moment. Funders are being called on to spend more, faster, with fewer restrictions. Organizations are trying to manage with what they have, and not investing in what they might not have. But I hear people talking about the creativity unleashed by stress and upheaval. The roaring 1920s followed the dismal 1910s. Can we repeat? Can we turn creative energy into better community building? I believe so, if we can get past the tough choices. There is one more tough question: how do we build a different relationship with government? How do we engage more effectively in policy development? How do we work with government to design more flexible and more effective regulation? How do we partner to share important data and evidence? How do we get the recognition from government as a sector that will enable us to flourish? I want to reflect on that in my third and last blog about a new agenda for the social good sector.

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