Support nonprofits for economic impact, not feel-good factor

publication date: Feb 6, 2012
author/source: Janet Gadeski
After 12 years at the Ontario Trillium Foundation, CEO Robin Cardozo will move in April to the chief operating officer role at Toronto's SickKids Foundation. In January, he shared his views on the sector's changes and challenges with Hilborn eNEWS.

eNEWS What would you most like to say to the nonprofit sector?

RC We make an incredibly powerful economic impact, especially when you include the leveraged impact of donations and volunteer hours. As governments, donors and corporations think about resources, we need to continue reminding them that investment in the sector isn't about feel-good. It's about economic impact.

eNEWS What's the biggest change you've seen in the nonprofit sector during your time at OTF?

RC The sector is much more mature. In the 24 years since I started with United Way I've seen major growth. I remember when many charities looked to government funders for their ongoing support. They weren't terribly innovative in resource development or programming. Now I see a huge degree of increasing self-reliance, particularly with revenue generation as well as program innovation. It speaks well for the future of the sector.

There are challenges too, of course. There will never be enough revenue to do everything we want to do. But the trend towards innovation is very encouraging.

We're making progress on collaboration as well. In general there's more openness, but I would say we still have some distance to go. I would like to think OTF has played a major role in that. We ask about it in every grant application -who you might you work with, who else is doing similar work. Now organizations come to us in groups of two to five, having already thought through how they'll work together.

eNEWS Are arms-length foundations like OTF the best way for governments to support nonprofits?

RC OTF is unique in the way it works. At Imagine Canada's Summit we kept hearing how other provinces envied Ontario. The province's government deserves a lot of credit for its vision of how to support the sector. OTF has been funded at increasing levels in spite of growing, competing demands. I wouldn't be so bold as to say the OTF model is the best, but it's highly effective because of the role of community volunteers in grant decisions.

eNEWS What about OTF are you proudest of?

RC Two particular areas of success for OTF have been its support for innovation and the operational success it's achieved through its people.

We've supported a growing number of organizations like Evergreen, The Stop and Eva's Phoenix that blend nonprofit work and social enterprise. We're good at identifying and supporting those trends.

And with our operations, everything OTF achieves is with other people. It starts with our ability to hire and retain superb staff across the province. Our terrific, committed community volunteers are equally important. They believe in our mission and want to invest government funds thoughtfully and wisely.

eNEWS Would you like to comment on the federal government's relationship with and views of the nonprofit sector, especially in light of the cuts to CIDA and the recent messaging around "foreign charities hijacking" the Keystone pipeline hearings?

RC We need to focus on what we can do in the medium and long term. I'm struck by blogs and articles and some politicians' remarks. There's not a wide understanding of the sector's work. We could do a better job of helping politicians, media and the general public understand the sector's value. Such a large portion of the population is engaged in the sector as volunteers. They can build understanding about the sector's value because they won't be seen as driven by self-interest.

eNEWS You've worked in both fundraising and grantmaking. What advice would you give to people who want to make significant changes in their career track?

RC One thing I've observed in the sector is that from a values perspective, there's a high degree of similarity among nonprofits. Staff and volunteers alike bring strong values that include commitment to communities, a generous approach towards collaboration, an openness to donations, and an interesting perspective on innovation because there are never enough resources. Those skills are useful wherever one is in the sector.

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