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How DecentWork can take your nonprofit to the next level: Interview with Cathy Taylor, Executive Director, Ontario Nonprofit Network

14 March 2016

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 March 14, 2016
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Cathy Taylor

Hey, everybody. Welcome. This is Mazarine Treyz of Wild Woman Fundraising and today I am so pleased to be interviewing Cathy Taylor, the executive director of the Ontario Nonprofit Network. Cathy, welcome.

 

Cathy Taylor: Thank you so much, Mazarine. Happy to talk to you.

MT: I am so excited about this. So what I’m trying to figure out with your presentation at the Next Level Fundraising Virtual Conference is what do we take for granted about our nonprofit work? How could our nonprofits be more effective if we just did this one thing? So to answer this question, we decided to offer a session on decent work, which is the research that Ontario Nonprofit Network is doing. So Ms. Cathy Taylor, who are you and what do you do?

CT: So I’m executive director at the Ontario Nonprofit Network. We’re called ONN here in Ontario, Canada. We advocate with and for Ontario’s 55,000 nonprofits and charities that are in our province. Our goal is really to work with them to create an enabling environment for the nonprofit sector to really thrive in Ontario.

MT: What are you teaching at the Next Level Fundraising Career Conference?

CT: Well, thanks for the invitation. I’m really looking forward to it. So I’ll be talking about decent work, what decent work is, and how decent work in the nonprofit sector can enhance the performance of our organizations. Because I know there’s a real interest in our effectiveness and our performance. So millions of people work in the nonprofit and charitable sector in Canada and the U.S. So we’ve done some research that really helped us I guess strengthen our resolve that we know that creating decent work in the sector can improve the quality of life for our employees and support effective in impactful outcomes for organizations. So I’ll share information about an Ontario-wide project that we’re doing, and we have over a million employees in Ontario’s nonprofit sector alone. We’re really meant to promote discussion around decent work and encourage action that we can do together.

MT: For the CEOs and the executive directors listening, and the board members, they may be struggling to make their programs effective. Why do you think this is?

CT: I mean, that’s a great question, and the first thing I would say is that they are not alone in that struggle. We hear that all the time in the Ontario nonprofit sector. I think we’re at a significant period of change in our sector. Philanthropy is shifting. Demographics are shifting. Government priorities are changing. Funding systems are changing. Even how we think about evaluation is changing, and at the same time the youth of our communities continue to grow. So the role of the charitable and nonprofit sector has never been so important. But these big shifts make it hard to ensure that what we’re doing at the program level on the ground is effective, and it’s getting harder to answer questions about do we have enough resources? Do we have the right staff? Do we have the right outcomes? Even how we define effectiveness is a challenge. So like I was talking about the number of program participants or the outcomes the program has had over the last ten years. So I feel like the landscape is shifting underneath us right now.

MT: Bcause of that shifting landscape, what is one mistake you see people make over and over when trying to increase program effectiveness?

CT: I think the one mistake I see is really about the lack of clarity. So we try to do so much with so little in our sector, and we often pride ourselves on doing more with less. But that leads to a scattered and under resourced approach. So we need to be much more clear about what our programs can and what they cannot do, and we can measure effectiveness far better if we are clear on our purposes and our objectives. We often confuse effectiveness with being busy. So for example, we have lots of program participants and our staff are doing lots of things. But we’ll always be busy. I think we need to take the time to be really clear about the why and how of our work.

MT: One of the things I’ve been reading in your change work research, which came out in November of 2015, is that a lot of people working in small nonprofits, people who have one to five people working there, and then there’s a whole bunch of people working at nonprofits who have 100 people and above. So based on this, that there’s under resourced nonprofits trying to measure their effectiveness, and then there’s these really huge ones and there’s everybody in between. What do you recommend for people who maybe just don’t have a lot of resources but still obviously want to do everything they can to be effective?

CT: You know, I think it’s really about scaling. So I think our sector is very diverse. There’s one person organizations. There’s many organizations that are completely volunteer driven in our communities, and then there’s multiple million dollar organizations. So I think we need to not worry about having the same standards and effectiveness for the small guys, the medium guys, and the big guys. I mean, I think we have to recognize and actually celebrate that diversity. So it’s not going to be possible for organizations with a few staff to have an elaborate succession planning and professional development plan, probably. But I think where the real opportunity is is to figure out how we pool our resources together better. So there’s so many examples that we’re starting to collect of how especially the small and the medium organizations are being able to share staff training with other organizations within their geographic community or within their subsector, or how they’re doing things with each other to help provide some leadership training when their organization doesn’t have enough pipelines in itself because it’s not big enough, in order to learn management skills for example. So I think we need to be much more creative and collaborative about some of the ways that we can, without actually adding a lot of cost, to be honest, create really good opportunities for effectiveness for the small to medium sized organizations. Part of that is just surfacing some of the great things that are already happening out there, and because we haven’t had a spotlight on this issue, we actually don’t know what some of the great barriers are.

MT: Yeah, I’ve certainly seen that here in the U.S. where small associations like the Mississippi Center for Nonprofits, for example, are just trying to pool together resources to do webinars across the state instead of having to do in person workshops, for example. They’re having people like me present for them, you know, and I live in Portland, Oregon. So there you go.

CT: Great example.

MT: So that’s an example of what you’re talking about. What has your decent work and change work research revealed so far?

CT: So it’s just been a few months that we’ve been working on this and we put this foundational report out in November. So what we discovered was we did find a framework for decent work through the International Labor Organization, which is a division actually of the United Nations. That framework is very helpful for our sector. So we’ve discovered that decent work can improve the quality of life for employees and support more effective impacts if we focus on some of the areas. The four areas that we’ve discovered in this research was the work environment, our employment relationships, our quality of work life, and then our organizational performance. So if we do activities in all of those, that can lead to greater impact. We also discovered that we need to talk about some really specific things in the sector. We need to talk about employment opportunities and fair income and health and retirement benefits, stable versus precarious employment, development opportunities, and culture and leadership. I think the final thing we discovered was that we recognized that change needs to happen at multiple levels. There are things that organizations can do at their own level. There’s things that networks and associations can do and there’s certainly things that the sector as a whole needs to do. So we’ve started to identify those barriers in some ways for it, and where we’re at right now is we want to learn more as this issue is something that organizations cannot work on in isolation.

Next Level Fundraising Conference

MT: So your message is really more about collaboration and sort of developing a series of standards. Is that correct?

CT: Yeah. We’re looking at, you know, developing a charter of decent work. What would that charter of decent work look like that boards of directors and CEOs could adopt? What are some indicators? They can maybe just be simple, maybe five or ten, and they can be based on size of organization. You know you’re going down a path of a decent work environment if you have professional development plans. That you look at your pay scales every two years. That you have a good proportion between the highest paid salary and the lowest paid salary. There are some indicators that we can come up with, and that’s what we’re working on right now.

MT: I love that. But let me play nonprofit beleaguered CEO for a second and say, but, you know, I’m really not looking to make my programs cost more to do. I mean, my funders aren’t going to like that. My board isn’t going to like that. I don’t know what the benefits are for me to buy into this decent work thing. So what’s in it for me? I have so many other things on my plate, you know.

CT: For sure. At the end of the day, I think we would all say – and I’ve been an executive director for over 15 years. I think we would all say our people are our greatest asset. So we know that when we have the right people in place and they’re happy in their workplace, our programs and services are better. We know that when we have less transition in our frontline staff and we have more stability in our frontline staff that our clients get better service. We actually know that staff turnover actually costs more money than paying someone a couple of dollars an hour more for the whole year. So I think we need to actually put some of that down in writing and have those business cases that boards and funders might need to look at. But I think at the end of the day, we recognize that we will do a better job. Our missions, whatever our mission is, whether it’s helping vulnerable people in communities, whether it’s an active sports program or a theater in a community, or even a safe organization. We know that our missions are going to be better when we have people that are motivated to work and love their work. So we need to figure out ways. Some cost money and some actually won’t cost money. So we need to be really clear on how we can improve our workplaces, and I think too that we’ll have a stronger – I’m not sure if the word is advocacy. But we’ll have a stronger position to go to funders if we’re all talking about the same thing. So if we all say, look, a health plan or some sort of retirement contribution or x percentage of our budget should be professional development is critical to the success of our program, and funders want our programs to be successful. So we’re going to have to figure out how to have those courageous conversations, I think. Because the beleaguered CEO or ED, I have been there, I am there. We can’t do it alone, and we can’t make these decisions. It has to be part of a broader strategy, and I think we need to start standing up to our funders, our governments, and talking about our role as employers and the rights of our employees.

MT: Wow, you didn’t say passion for the mission once in there. Nice. I’ve heard it so many times, well, we all have a real passion for the mission here. That’s why we all make $10.00 an hour or $12.00 haha. We all wish we could make more. I’ve had people tell me this.

CT: Well you know what? And I think we all know that there’s a little self sabotage in that. What we do is important work in our sector and we should not actually expect people to make less. Quite frankly, they should probably make more. But the point is, I think, is that we can’t undervalue the work that needs to happen. We’re a very unique sector because we can have volunteers and we do have volunteers that contribute to our passion, and we certainly don’t want to risk not having amazing volunteer programs. But we do need to recognize when we need paid staff who have skills to do certain jobs, and we need to treat them well.

MT: Yes. It’s true, and I wish more organizations, CEOs and EDs thought like you. So speaking of them, people around, what are some of those responses you’re finding to your research?

CT: It’s a great question. We have been shocked with the response to this research. We’ve had a tremendous response. It’s one of the most popular reports we’ve ever done, and we’ve had response from the sector, from media, from government. But I will be honest and say it’s been varied. The majority are fascinated and thrilled that we’re focusing on such an important issue and that we’re shining that spotlight. Others are concerned that we’re painting the sector in a negative light when we talk about decent work because it could mean that some of us actually don’t provide decent work in the sector, which is actually likely the case, but also very likely that it’s unintentional. So we’re trying to put some intention behind that. Most importantly, I’m actually really surprised at the interest from the many youth  leaders and youth focused organizations. The next generation of leaders really wants to talk about this issue. They really want to talk about precarious work and contract work and pensions, because they want to work in our sector rather than working in the private or public sectors. So I think the response so far, people have been excited, interested, concerned, but most of all really anxious for new tools and strategies and resources. So now what? Like everybody said, well, this is interesting, fascinating, challenging, but now what? What are we going to do? So I feel like we’ve opened the door a crack, and we’ve got to see how to kick it wide open.

MT: I will tell you a little story. Speaking of youth that are working in nonprofits, I had a friend a few years ago now who was volunteering at a horse ranch out in Southwestern America and doing some horse therapy stuff. She called it camping, and that meant that she and her dog every night would just find a place by the side of the road and just camp there. She did this for years. She just couldn’t find a decent work job with a nonprofit, even though she was doing a lot of different work tasks for them, and she was basically homeless. So I’m not saying that every volunteer is homeless or anything like that. I’m just saying it’s really good to hear that the response to this is with the youth, because there are so many people who are just in precarious work right now. My friend is still not very stable, and it’s years later. So I really feel the need for this work because I know her, too.

CT: These are our future leaders. Like, we should be doing everything we can to support them.

MT: Yes. I totally agree, and having people not be able to have a pension plan or a structure for helping get them to the next step in their career is just – it doesn’t have to be this way. So what will nonprofit leaders learn if they come to your session?

Next Level Fundraising Conference

CT: Well, hopefully they’ll learn about the idea and framework for decent work, as well as why we should care about this in our sector. I think we’ll talk about how we can work together to create opportunities for decent work and help identify what some of the barriers might be and some of the ways to move forward. As individual organizations, as a sector, and then as part of the broader labor market. But hopefully it will be an opportunity to really learn some potential new language and new ways of thinking about it, but also to engage and share examples and stories.

MT: That’s so good. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

CT: I think just that this is really a long overdue conversation and one they really can’t ignore anymore. Our people, as I mentioned, are our greatest asset in the sector, and I think it’s time we made sure that we really think about what that means for us.

MT:  If people want to read more about your research or dig deeper, how can they find it? How can they get in touch with you?

CT: Absolutely. So all of our research, all of the things that we do is all public. It’s all on our website, which is www.theonn.ca. My email is also on the website and we have a page that’s dedicated to decent work in our report on there and some of the next steps we’re doing. There’s also a video series about the labor force in the nonprofit sector that people can take a look at, and we encourage anybody to cut, paste, use, share. So we’re happy to have people access the information.

MT: Actually that’s how I originally found out about your work is I saw one of your videos, and it was incredibly powerful and I thought, ‘I’ve got to talk to them.’ So I’m so glad that you made them. So I’m going to probably link one of those at the end of this presentation.

CT: Absolutely. That would be awesome.

MT: Thank you so much. This is going to be, I think, a life-changing session for a lot of people cumulatively to come to. So I really appreciate you having this interview today and being available to speak at this conference. Thank you.

CT: You’re welcome. I’m really looking forward to it.

 

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