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Professionalizing the passion

A look at the world-class programs that are educating leaders for Canada’s voluntary sector.


When Bob Mcginnis took over as executive director of Brown Bagging for Calgary’s Kids back in 2005, the organization was truly a mess. The charity was almost $40,000 in debt and depended upon the largesse of a single benefactor to pay for the groceries and other bills.  The organization had no clear vision or set of values and, even worse, their actions directly contravened their stated mission to get kids off the street – its services were actually helping kids to remain homeless. Not that they were providing many lunches for underprivileged kids, anyway: the charity was producing just 300 meals a week, resources were extremely thin, and a scarcity mentality reigned.

“It was a small, troubled organization. In management parlance, it was a ‘burning platform.’ And I was able to arrive in August of 2005 and begin relentless incremental change,” says Mr. McGinnis.

Four years later, Brown Bagging for Calgary’s Kids – known as BB4CK – now provides 15,000 lunches each week. It has a clear mission statement and set of organizational values, as well as a long list of donors who enabled the charity to finish 2009 with a surplus amidst the worst recession in decades, without the benefit of any government funding.

A veteran of the non-profit sector who spent years working as a manager of international and disaster services for the Red Cross, Mr. McGinnis was able to draw upon his experience to help turn around the organization. But he gives the lion’s share of the credit to the education and training he received when he returned to school as a 48-year-old mature student, enrolling in the bachelor of business administration program for non-profits at Mount Royal University in Calgary. He says that his education, among other things, helped him to build a proper organizational structure and develop a clear set of goals, to understand the charity’s financial statements and to institute a proven fundraising model.

In explaining his decision to go back to school, Mr. McGinnis says, “I realized the passion that I had for the work was not enough.” He wishes that more leaders of small- and medium-sized non-profits would follow his footsteps. “Executive directors often run their organizations with their hearts. But I believe we need to be running them with our hearts and our heads.”

The need for both passion and professionalism has become especially acute in the past three decades, a period of massive growth for the voluntary sector. According to Statistics Canada, the non-profit sector now represents 7.1 percent of the Canadian economy.  The non-profit sector’s GDP was $80.3 billion in 2003, according to the latest data available. It’s hard to believe, but that share is bigger than agriculture and motor vehicle manufacturing combined.  The sector now employs 1.2 million paid workers, more than seven percent of the nation’s workforce.

Owen Charters, executive director of CanadaHelps, an online donation portal that has channeled more than $100 million to thousands of Canadian charities since its founding 10 years ago, notes that public perceptions still have not caught up with reality. Despite the fact that many non-profits are now enormous and complex organizations with billions of dollars at their disposal, “there’s still this image of us being this good-natured, twinkle-toed, dimple-cheeked, naïve sector that people love to love,” says Mr. Charters. “But this is also damaging, because we need people to realize that it requires professional management. It can’t just be done three hours a week at the kitchen table by a well-meaning volunteer.”

Kathy Brock, a professor in the school of policy studies at Queen’s University and one of the nation’s foremost authorities on Canada’s voluntary sector, notes that the nature of non-profits began to change in earnest in the early to mid-1980s. During this period, Conservative governments in Canada, the U.S. and the U.K. began downloading more and more responsibility onto the private and non-profit sectors.  At the same time, more citizens were feeling the sting of cutbacks and began relying more heavily on non-profits for both services and a voice of advocacy. As these organizations gained clout, they began to demand a seat at the policy table.  And all this accelerated with the dawning of the digital age. “Organizations were learning from each other internationally, and that was one thing that the Internet and computers really opened up,” observes Dr. Brock.

Besides the bachelor program at Mount Royal, there are several degree, diploma and certificate programs at other universities that target the management of the non-profit sector.  These include offerings at the universities of Regina, Sherbrooke, UQAM, Montréal, Moncton, Western Ontario, Toronto and Dalhousie, among others.  And new programs continue to be added: University of Victoria’s school of public administration, for example, is launching an online MA program in community development designed for working professionals.

York University’s Schulich School of Business was one of the first to get into the game, in Canada and the world, with a certificate program in 1983 that would eventually grow into the nation’s first MBA in non-profit management. (Trinity Western University also offers an MBA with a specialization in non-profit and public management.) At Schulich, students in the non-profit management and leadership MBA program learn such business fundamentals as marketing and finance alongside their for-profit peers, but then focus on the voluntary sector through upper-year elective courses. Let there be no mistake, warns Brenda Gainer, the program 
director: this is a real MBA, and students in the non-profit stream earn a serious education in management and leadership.

Besides taking specialized courses in advocacy and social marketing, non-profit students explore a different set of values – profitability is not the goal here – as well as some very interesting theory.  “Some people would ask, can you have marketing when you don’t have profitability as a goal?” observes Dr. Gainer.  She notes that attracting resources from one set of people and then allocating them to another adds a whole additional layer of complexity: “I think for-profit marketing is really simple compared to non-profit marketing.”

Christina Topping, a Schulich grad who is now vice-president, marketing and communications, for the Canadian arm of the World Wildlife Fund, says the courses that focused on “the complexity of the not-for-profit sector, in particular, were very valuable … The industry has a different bottom line, and it’s a different way of viewing the bottom line, but you still need to know how to manage your goals.”

Students in non-profit programs tend to be older and in mid-career; some are already leaders in the voluntary sector who want to beef up their skills, while others may come from a more traditional business career. 
But now, an increasing number of students are enrolling in the undergrad 
programs directly out of high school or from another path.

At Mount Royal, the non-profit BBA program is well regarded, says program director Keith Seel. New graduates have no trouble finding jobs in the sector, in mid-level positions or higher, he adds: “I haven’t heard of a student that has graduated without a job.”

Mr. Charters of CanadaHelps didn’t have a chance to finish his program at Schulich before being snapped up by the voluntary sector. He split his final academic year into two while working full-time as a donor-relations coordinator for Muscular Dystrophy Canada. He quickly became national director of marketing and development, proceeded to the Sunnybrook Hospital Foundation where he was the vice-president of development, and then to CanadaHelps as executive director.

He says that his professional training at Schulich, besides teaching him how to read balance sheets and develop analytical and strategic skills, imbued him with a new vocabulary.  “Being able to speak the language immediately when you’re talking with financial folks, whether it’s auditors or members of your own team, really is a major advantage,” he observes.

Mr. Charters hopes that all of this will change public perception about the voluntary sector and help garner a little more respect. “The sector is enormous, in terms of the work it’s doing, the impact it’s having – not just in terms of people’s lives, but also changing policy at different levels of government. It’s got an incredible amount of power and shapes the fabric of Canadian society. Yet for some reason people take it for granted that it’s still run by good-natured volunteers working out of a basement somewhere.”

Tim Johnson
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