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Imagine all the people

By Chris Atchison | January 20, 2012
Imagine all the people
Marcel Lauzière

Despite the challenges, Imagine Canada CEO Marcel Lauzière sees opportunity for the charitable sector. In the same way that the sector helped integrate social responsibility into the corporate agenda, non-profits can take a few lessons from the corporate world to transform everything from their organizational structure to their service delivery processes.

Imagine if, as a CEO, louder voices in the media, government, private sector and general public regularly challenged your compensation, while also questioning the size and scope of the organizational infrastructure you oversee. Manageable obstacle to success, you say? Then consider what would happen if your organization’s traditional sources of funding began drying up in an environment of rapid social and economic change.

This may sound unusual – even improbable – but not if you’re the head of one of Canada’s more than 160,000 registered charities and non-profit organizations. For those executives, troubleshooting a wide array of challenges has become a daily reality. No one knows that better than Marcel Lauzière, president and CEO of Toronto-based Imagine Canada.

“Like many industries in Canada, this is a time of real change for us,” says Lauzière. “One main issue is sustainability as many governments are moving away from supporting non-profits and charities not only based on deficit issues, but because governments around the world are re-thinking their role and what size they want to be.” Non-profits forced to make do with less are also struggling to find ways to attract top, young talent to achieve their charitable objectives. Then there is the scrutiny many charities have faced in recent years as the public has become fascinated by occasional media reports of inefficient governance practices, drawing the ire of everyone from politicians to individual donors.

While the challenges are daunting and numerous, Lauzière believes the charitable sector is facing just as many opportunities. The CEO says that by embracing change and adapting, Canada’s charities and non-profits can be as effective as ever. In the same way the sector slowly introduced its values-based approach to corporate Canada over the past two decades to help interweave corporate social responsibility awareness and initiatives into the business models of companies from SMBs to major corporations, non-profits can take a few lessons from the ivory tower to transform everything from their organizational structures to service delivery processes.

For Lauzière, that first lesson comes from the marketing department. As non-profits face that increasing scrutiny about how they doll out government, corporate and donor dollars, he feels that in some cases, organizations have allowed themselves to be judged not by the outcome of their work, but by the amount they spend on administrative costs.

The solution to the problem, he says, involves improving communication around non-profits’ strategies and tactics for doing good, while making a business case for their overhead. And yes, that includes justifying CEO salaries. While they never will be comparative to salaries in the private sector, they do need to be competitive. “We need to develop a new relationship moving away from a 19th century view of charities being run by nice people who do nice things – we won that marketing battle a long time ago,” Lauzière says. “If Canadians really want to see impact and change, then these organizations need to be well governed. They need resources; they need skill sets.”

They also need to win over an increasingly skeptical media and general public, which Lauzière feels can be achieved through heightened transparency. That begins by acknowledging the sector’s challenges and taking action. It’s the reason why Imagine Canada is launching a rigorous peer review and accreditation process. While enrollment in the accreditation regime will be voluntary, Lauzière feels that peer pressure will nudge most of Canada’s non-profit and charitable organizations to participate over time.

Because many of those aforementioned critics routinely visit the Canada Revenue Agency website for details about how charities spend their money—which only provides an organization’s bottom-line financial information, not details of its social impact—Imagine Canada recently worked to build a one-stop online information portal where organizations can upload their annual reports, evaluations and outcome assessments alongside the data they provide to the CRA. Now, donors, media or government officials will have a complete picture of an organization’s systems and successes, and will be able to see exactly how their scarce dollars are being spent.

Lauzière feels these proactive measures are not only crucial to demonstrating the sector’s willingness to adapt to change, but also reminding results-conscious politicians they’re on the same page. “Our message to politicians is: Don’t over-regulate, but let’s make sure Canadians have the information to make the right decisions,” he says.

Of course, these initiatives all take highly skilled and dedicated staffers to run effectively. While the non-profit sector has long enjoyed the labour of passionate Canadians, “Two million people work in the non-profit sector in Canada, 11 per cent of the labour force, but our workers are aging,” says Lauzière. “The question is how we put the non-profit sector on the radar of university and college graduates.”

Imagine Canada has been talking with organizations across the country about the need to recruit and retain highly skilled people, highlighting non-profit-unique opportunities for career growth, development and creativity and marketing to students and recent grads. But Lauzière is also realistic about the challenge of competing with deeper-pocketed government agencies and firms in the private sector. “People are telling us they want to change the world, but they also want to pay their mortgages, travel and have quality of life. We may not pay what [private] business is paying, but down the road, we have to recognize the need to shift this around.” World-changers require competitive salaries, benefits and opportunities for advancement. Will that result in higher administrative costs for charities? Absolutely, but will also drive greater positive changes.

It’s the reason why Lauzière feels it’s incumbent upon the charitable sector to tap new sources of revenue. Imagine Canada is currently exploring new avenues to appeal to donors across divergent demographic groups, while striving to become more innovative and find new revenue-generating tools. That could mean lobbying for changes to the regulatory regime that governs how charities raise funds, but also involves engaging private-sector leaders in a different way. “I would like to see [us] sitting down to look at the challenges this country is facing and how we can work together to overcome them… with the charitable and private sector working together,” the CEO explains. After all, as Lauzière has stressed over and over since taking the reins at Imagine Canada in 2008, “If you shut down [the charitable sector] tomorrow, this country wouldn’t be able to run.”

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