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Recovering backpacker, Cornwallite at heart, political enthusiast, catalyst, writer, husband, father, community volunteer, unabashedly proud Canadian. Every hyperlink connects to something related directly or thematically to that which is highlighted.

Monday, 18 January 2016

Community, Refugees and the Future of Good Will

I don't know enough about Goodwill's situation to know exactly why they are in the position they are in.  What I do know is that across the board, there has been increased pressure on non-profit and charitable ventures to become financially self-sustaining on their own right - ie, to stop relying on handouts and spend more time and effort on revenue generation.

Which, really, defeats the purpose.  

Organizations like Goodwill tend to serve clientèle without the means to be self-sustaining on their own; if they were, they wouldn't need organizations like Goodwill, and there would be no need for organizations like Goodwill.

In the past, organizations like this would get lump sums to spend, and do drives, and the simple fact that they were community-benefit organizations was enough to justify the money they got.  As funding has gotten tight, however, more attention has been paid towards "impact investing" - ie, making sure that money that goes to organizations like Goodwill demonstrably make a difference.

There's also been a shift in focus from funding organizations to funding projects, and even narrower down to specific outcomes.  Funders want to see the needle move on specific KPI (key performance indicators), and they want to know in advance that they money they spend will deliver short-term ROI (return on investment).

Of course, that's what's on paper.  In the real world, people remain people and connections, marketing and hustle matter more than direct results.  A well-written report carefully promoted through a targeted outreach/media campaign can nurture the impression that magic has been worked, when in reality, the truth is more like a bit of water has been shovelled from here to there.

It all paints an interesting picture.  

True, the previous model of community good tended to take a white saviour complex approach, providing stuff for marginalized communities in perpetuity, without a real concrete plan of how forced obsolescence (by empowering communities to be self-sustaining on their own).  Partially, this stemmed from a belief that "they" would always be dependent.  The nature of the model encourages this approach to a large degree from the service employee side - if you get into a service agency, you can have a stable career doing for others what they can't do for themselves, 

Now, as the wells of funding are drying up, organizations that theoretically want the same outcomes - support for the communities they serve - are competing for funding and often spending a lot of capital and energy on positioning themselves for success more than the end-user.  You might thing, from a free-market perspective, that this is a good thing; services compete for resources and the best provider wins, meaning the best service gets offered.

This isn't a systematic thing, though, and not enough attention is being given to the big picture.

When small, disorganized not-for-profits compete for funding or apply for whatever funding they can get, they stray from their original mandates.  Or, they fold, and the people they serve are left without the service they once relied upon.  Meanwhile, the successful ones get more money and perhaps expand their offerings in specific, fund-getting ways, but too many services and people fall through the cracks.

And since no one is looking for cracks to fill when they're focused on low-hanging fruit, the structural challenges only come to light when they come to light in big ways - like the Danzig shooting, for instance.

There are a series of emerging structural issues that are being ignored by many, because no one is thinking systematically.  Objectivism is creeping into the system, and the consequences of this narrow frame of thinking are becoming clear.

That's the negative.  It's not all negative, though.

Truth be told, a lot of service providers haven't been as efficient as they could be - not with their internal management, not with their outcomes.  There is an absolute and dire need for public good service providers to be more strategic, more organized and more creative - and to work harder at putting themselves out of work by fostering sustainable communities.

It'll never happen - there will always be the need for charitable, community-good support - but we can definitely do better than we have been doing.

This is where social innovation, community benefit planning and incredible pop-up initiatives like The Clothing Drive come in.  What we've seen emerge in Canada as a response to the Syrian refugee crisis has been amazing - self-organizing groups are creating (and often re-creating) cool initiatives that at their best fill gaps and create wholly new models of support.  

Free retail stores for refugees?  Professional qualification assistance for transitioning new Canadians to be economic contributors in their fields?  Building bridges between existent communities and new neighbours through art and music?  It's incredible.  Best of all, a lot of it is being organized independent of older models and the challenges they face, meaning that these new groups are creating new models that are more reflective of the world at this moment in time, not 50 or 60 years ago.

Not all of these initiatives will stick, nor should they - but as some of them build partnerships with the private sector and start cooperating with government, I feel like we're witnessing the emergence of a new public good sector that will work in an entirely different way than the old one.  

Imagine corporations giving a bit of space for community benefit, and getting tax write-offs for it.  Or employees being given hours of paid work to volunteer for organizations like this, or offering professional services like management or legal aid or media/marketing.  The groups themselves can keep their overhead low and spend more time focused on the service they provide rather than keeping themselves afloat.

There's structural change afoot - it will be painful for some, and there will be structural challenges with some serious repercussions, but there are promising new ideas and models emerging that might just readjust the system to tackle some of these structural/cultural flaws in the long run.

Interesting times, indeed...

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