Good morning everyone. Great to be here with you again.
Rebecca asked that I take a few minutes this morning to talk about Sector Branding and Recognition and I want to start with an email from Paul Willcocks, which sent to me after the election. Paul is Jody Paterson’s partner and has been doing some work for us. He’s talking here about the Op-eds developed by the Roundtable of Provincial Social Services Organizations over the course of the past year. He says:
“The Op-Eds are important in making the issues mainstream. Over time, readers and politicians develop the perception that investing in support for people and families is being widely discussed, and has broad support. The issues move from the fringe, to a central place in the public policy debates. And people are aware, even if they haven’t read any of the columns to the end. “
“The anti-government, anti-tax people have been really skillful at this. Their ideas weren’t really mainstream. But they used a variety of approaches and eventually the perception that people didn’t value public services, or that they were inherently inefficient or too expensive, became widely accepted and shaped the debates.”
Paul’s comments were on my mind when I started to think about what I would say to you today and I realized that any notions we have about sector recognition are not only about needs and services and agencies and policies, but at a broader level, about the cultural memes that drive societal change. And that if we were going to get anywhere, we had to confront the meme that Paul references with a more compelling one. And what does that even begin to look like?
Imagine Canada is facilitating a national conversation for the non-profit sector, aimed at developing a new narrative, and in B.C., the Federation is part of a cross sector group working with them on the language to begin to distinguish the non-profit sector from government and business. What makes this sector important? Why is it needed? How does it advance the lives of people and society?
So when we think about something called sector branding and recognition in community social services, we have to give thought to those larger ideas behind the work – to help shape the meme we want to create or get behind.
On one level, we’re talking about gaining public recognition in order to influence policy makers to take care of systemic social issues, fund our work and pay us better wages. All important things.
On another level though, we are talking about how our society works. How people feel about things like income disparity? What we believe about inclusion? How we think about the role of government in helping our fellow citizens? What constitutes a healthy community? What forces are at work globally that affect this? Related to these broader questions, how do we see social services as a sector in society and what cultural shifts are required to bring about the changes we think are important?
I don’t intend to address all these questions today, but it’s no secret that this Federation has taken a very active role in thinking about sector branding and recognition over the past five years. One of the things I did when I first volunteered with the Federation in 2007 was to help Jennifer organize a meeting of a small group of social services leaders and academics to think about the sector.
A host of issues were raised at that meeting, many of which are still there today, six years later………sector wages in community services still lag behind health and government; multi-national corporations are still looking for business opportunities in our sector; there is still a lack of a shared vision across the province and siloed thinking and funding; there’s still a lack of collaborative planning and mechanisms for accountability at the community level and we’re still faced with a competitive model of procurement rather than a collaborative community model. These were all issues then and they are still today. Another big issue was sector branding and recognition.
A quote from the notes of that meeting states: “The community sector risks being marginalized and language such as ‘the contract sector’ as a descriptor, reinforce that possibility. “
There were many other issues raised and ideas put forward at this first meeting and the Federation, with support from other umbrella organizations began to give thought to how we might address some of these.
One of the very first things we decided to do was to stop calling ourselves the ‘contract sector’. Being publically defined by our business relationship with government was ridiculous and so instead we decided to always use the term ‘community social services.’
In 2008 we began to organize a number of meetings with umbrella organizations to see if it were possible to get some traction on developing a broader provincial level group, pulling together all of the umbrella organizations in social services, of which there are at least 60 or more in the province. We had high hopes of developing an MOU between the organizations to allow us to work more efficiently together, but at that time, were unable to pull this off. (You will recall that the Government Non Profit Initiative was just starting up at that time as well). What eventually emerged out of these meetings was a loosely structured group we called the Roundtable of Provincial Social Service Organizations.
This past year, the Roundtable established a leadership group to develop a coordinated sector response for the election. For the first time, we had a little money in the kitty to coordinate the group, and the Federation was asked to take on a more formal coordination role. A plan, including messaging, social and print media strategies and outreach was developed.
Not long after those very first Roundtable meetings, we began to think about how we might enlist the expertise and cache of our volunteer boards of directors in support of this sector and the issues it faced. With literally thousands of board members across the province, we saw the potential of a constituency of already engaged citizens who could provide a different voice, both to our communities and for our communities to the provincial government.
So in 2008, right around the time the economy was collapsing, board members from around the province got together to design what would become the Board Voice Society of B.C. a year later. The Federation directly sponsored the emergence of Board Voice and continues to coordinate its activities through a contractual relationship with their board. As I’m sure you’re aware, Board Voice is truly an organization of volunteers. The total staff support for Board Voice comes from the Federation and amounts to approximately ¾ of one staff person.
Both of these collaborative initiatives have focused on elevating understanding about the importance of the work of the social services sector; on raising issues, which affect the work of the sector and the people it supports and by seeking solutions to systemic issues.
One of the difficult things to assess in this area of branding and recognition is to try to figure out what success looks like. Is it about attracting new funding for the sector or the adoption of new policies? Will we see $10 a day, daycare any time soon or a $3 billion dollar fix for Generation Squeeze? Not likely. But you can be sure that ideas like these will never see the light of day if no one raises the possibilities and explains the logic behind them. These are the kinds of ideas that may eventually become part of a cultural meme and drive change over time.
You may have heard this story about the Board Voice board’s meeting some months ago with the editorial board of the Vancouver Sun, a very business oriented group. The first question put to us by one of the editors was “Why should I care?” Our board members provided excellent answers about the economic impact of our work, referencing the social determinants of health and the research that’s starting to pile up about alternatives to expensive, high-end health and justice services and the impacts of poverty. The second question was why we weren’t out supporting the pipeline projects and other economic developments in the province in order to pay for these services. And that’s when our Treasurer was able to say “ I’m the CFO of a manufacturing company in the lower mainland and sit as a governor on the Surrey Board of Trade. In those capacities, I support all kinds of job creation initiatives.
However, I sit on this board because I want to ensure that we have safe and nurturing communities to raise our children.”
We had several business people in the room with us that day, in addition to the social service professionals like Carol Matusicky and Judy Hayes, and I believe it made a real difference in how we were listened to. This is one of the great benefits of having volunteer board members more deeply involved – not only do they bring experience and skills, but they come from all different walks of life.
What that interaction led to was a relationship which allowed us to funnel a number of different Op-eds from the Roundtable, through to the Vancouver Sun over the past six months. These were also sent throughout the province and were printed in many local newspapers. There were Op-eds about seniors and community care, women and violence, children in care, mental health and addictions and the need for a social policy framework amongst others. Ultimately, we had nine different Op-eds published and of those, eight were signed by members of this Federation (although often under the banner of another organization.). I think it’s fair to say that it’s been some time since the community social services sector has had such sustained positive media attention.
Also developed prior to the election and sent out with a press release was a public opinion poll researching attitudes about community social services. This poll was then compared to one developed in 2000 to see what the differences were in responses and is available to all members. You can find access to this on the Fed website.
Another Roundtable interest has been the procurement system in B.C. and it helped the Victoria Community Social Planning Council to undertake some cross Canada research on the subject, which resulted in a report entitled Toward a Community Benefit Model of Procurement in Social Services.
One of the more significant things emerging from the Board Voice experience is the inter-board collaborations that have developed in a number of communities. There are currently six different projects under way across the province to create greater collaboration, better governance or enhanced community understanding of the sector.
The most recent development in this regard, has been an initiative on the part of five member agencies in Greater Vancouver to begin a process of promoting the need for a social policy framework for the province. You may recall that Marshall Watson developed a paper for the Federation providing an overview of various framework models from across the country. When they read this paper, Board Voice board members became very interested in pursuing the idea and several member boards decided to take the initial steps in developing this as a project. I won’t say more about it now, but rest assured, that as this idea moves forward, everyone will have an opportunity to become involved. In the meantime, you can read Marshall’s paper on the Federation website. You might also be interested in looking at what other provinces have done, including Alberta, which just signed off on theirs in February of this year and Nova Scotia’s Weaving the Threads”.
Just recently, a former public servant with the Ministry of Finance reviewed funding levels in B.C. dating back to 2001 and corrected for inflation and population increases. His figures indicate that social services have suffered a 23% decline, while health funding has increased by 34% over the same period.
So if you thought that things were getting worse, you were right. The stresses and pressures on our services are real. Were we to continue to fund health services at the rate we do currently, there will be little money for much else. Community social services offer a better way to invest in people at a lower cost and we must continue to make that case to government and the public.
All of us here are a part of the work of branding and promoting this sector. We do this, not for our own benefit, but because we all recognize the importance of the work our organizations do every day and the enormous impact they have on people’s lives and on the health of our communities.
A couple of weeks ago, I read an article in the Victoria Times Colonist that some of you may also have read, by Monique Keiran, where she talked about each of us having about 100 trillion individual microbes living in and on our bodies, including about 15,000 different species of bacteria living in our gut; another 500 or so different species living on our skin; eye microbes, nose microbes, eyebrow microbes and so on. In fact there are 10 times more bacteria living in us than there are human cells. And that’s just bacteria. She goes on to say that according to the latest research on the human microbe biome, being human means living in mutually constructive relationships with many, many other organisms. It means fostering and nurturing those organisms and relationships for the continued well-being of all the organisms concerned.
We don’t usually think of ourselves as a personal ecosystem, but in fact, we are.
In a famous quote Albert Einstein said:
“A human being is part of a whole, called by us the ‘Universe’ —a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts, and feelings, as something separated from the rest—a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”
We are intimately connected to ecosystems both inside of us and outside. We need to collaborate to survive and in fact, as Greek evolutionary thinker Elisbet Sahtouris has pointed out, collaboration is the hallmark of evolutionary success, not competition.
I believe that this perspective needs to become a part of the new meme – one that embraces economic realities, but also moderates those notions of radical individualism and “the secret hand of the marketplace”.
If we begin to recognize our radical connectedness on one hand and find ways to work creatively with that notion as a fundamental principle, then I believe we will begin to establish a new way of thinking about our communities, our neighbours; and our work – and our sector will evolve into a more comprehensive system of supports for people, informed by local realities and governed by community members.