Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Managing problems is not progress

I am fond of saying that charities are the delivery system for civilization.

I can not imagine the kind of society we would have if they were not on the scene with their millions of volunteers. I can only say, with certainty, that Canada would not be near the top of those "best places to live" lists that cause us to puff out our chests.

I'm not sure that this is clear to our government, despite the fact that many of these charities are mandated to deliver essential social services that are in high demand due to the recession.

It must be said that the Finance Minister has a difficult task, juggling the demands of competing priorities against the background of a fiscal deficit and shrunken tax revenues.

Nonetheless, prior to the recession, many charities received just enough government funding to stay alive to continue managing the problems they address. This meant little or no funding for infrastructure (up to date technology, building maintenance, decent compensation and working conditions, adequate staffing, etc.) that would improve organizations' effectiveness and efficiency. It is widely believed that tomorrow's federal budget may be devastating for the sector.

Now consider that while some organizations, like those in medical research, are focused on solving problems, many more are geared to making life a little less mean for the poor, the jobless, the homeless, the recently immigrated, the abused, the addicted, the chronically ill, and so on --- managing problems.

Of course, all of this has great value, both economic and humanitarian, and is deserving of all the support we can muster. But we seem to have become satisfied with just managing, rather than solving, social problems.

An entire nonprofit "industry" perpetually begs for tax dollars and the support of donors, not to eradicate a need, but to manage the status quo.

It is broadly assumed that these problems are not going away so, grudgingly, we must pay enough to keep them from getting so out of control that they spill over into our relatively comfortable lives.

A real test of this is whether an organization's activities are likely to eliminate the need for that organization. Those who can honestly answer "Yes" deserve special levels of support, because they are the agents of change.

For example, food banks were conceived as an aid to those finding themselves temporarily overwhelmed due to job loss. It was thought, in the beginning, that there would come a day when food banks would no longer be needed. That day has not come, and food banks are now a permanent part of the social services landscape.

Essential as they are, food banks are not agents of change. They are managing the status quo.

Doesn't this all sound a bit like the little Dutch boy with his finger in the dike?

Is there a shortage of means, of will, or of leadership?

We can do better, but we can't make major progress on all fronts at once. Let's start with setting some national priorities. Who better to assist with this than the charities that swim in these problems every day. There is no history in government of tapping into the nonprofit sector for top level policy guidance.

That needs to change.

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