Opinion piece on BC non-profit sector: You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone

Here’s our executive director Jody Paterson writing an opinion piece in the Vancouver Sun on just how much is at risk in social care when we neglect to value the non-profit community-based organizations that do this work so well.

By Jody Paterson

I work in the non-profit community social-services sector. If your eyes glazed over when you read that, that nicely demonstrates the kind of PR problems besetting the sector now.

We’re in all your lives, though you likely don’t know us by that “community social-services” tag. We’re your daycares, your home care, your crisis line, your social housing. We’re treatment services, counselling, mom-and-tot groups, immigrant settlement, supports for people with special needs. We’re the soup-to-nuts helpful array of thousands of local services around B.C., every one of our organizations born out of the dream of passionate people who saw a need for social care and stepped up to address it.

That sounds so warm and fuzzy, doesn’t it? Everyone loves us. Virtually everyone has a story about an amazing community non-profit they have known, and an expression of heartfelt respect for the vital work of the sector. “Good people,” as one B.C. politician summed it up in a recent meeting with me.

But it doesn’t feel like love is in the air right now from inside the sector.

The work is challenging at the best of times, what with it mostly funded project-by-project and for short periods, with the tightest of margins for operating. Right now, however, there are so many layers of other unexpected and negative developments adding to the mix that there’s a real life-and-death feeling to the moment.

Here’s where the PR problem comes in for our sector: Very few people even understand what we do, let alone appreciate that we’re the best ones to do it.

We were born to do it, literally. Every community non-profit’s birth story begins with motivated citizens identifying a need, then building a non-profit to address it. Every one of us is required to have an elected volunteer community board overseeing everything we do, and to reinvest every penny of profit back into our communities (that’s why they call us non-profits).

I mean, what’s not to like about that perfect community model?

And yet we’re losing ground. Two multinational corporations took 22 per cent of the money in the recent awarding of Work B.C. employment-training contracts. Last week, we woke up to news in the media that home-support services are moving back to health authorities next year — news that has left shell-shocked non-profit providers scrambling to figure out whether they can still keep the doors open once they lose those contracts.

An emerging issue is open procurement. In a nutshell, that involves government procuring more and more of its services through open bids that treats companies and not-for-profits exactly the same.

That might sound “fair.” But if you don’t build in points in the bidding process for the extras that non-profits bring to social care — community connection, services built on passion rather than profit, reinvestment back into community — the whole raison d’etre of the non-profit model counts for nothing. When you create larger service regions managed by far fewer suppliers, you create major financial risk that few community non-profits are prepared to take on.

And eventually, the global corporations moving into social care all around the world end up owning social care in B.C. as well.

Just last week, our sector learned that open procurement will be used to secure the next round of contracts for B.C.’s child-care resource and referral centres, established in 38 communities around the province to support families and child-care providers. Unless the scoring for that procurement includes points for the unique values that community-based non-profits bring to this work, these services as well could end up the work of multinationals.

Governments in Canada do have to manage procurement in accordance with international free-trade agreements. But do we actually want to view the social health of our communities as a commodity on the open market? Do we have any proof that open procurement is the best way to go about selecting who provides vital social-care services to our citizens?

There are fundamental issues at stake here. And what worries me most is that we aren’t talking about them. Change is just happening, looking a lot like surprise one-offs until you start keeping a list and realize just how many unsettling and unexpected developments are going on for B.C.’s community non-profit sector.

Some of them won’t survive — and not because their services were inferior, unnecessary or unvalued. Simply because somebody somewhere changed things up without thinking about unintended consequences on community services that really matter.

Am I whining? Is this “self-interest”? Our sector always seems to get that term thrown at us when we raise issues. Sure, we’re self-interested — who isn’t? I’ve got a big two-day-a-week job without benefits at stake here.

But just because we work in the sector doesn’t mean you shouldn’t listen to us. Good and important services delivered by caring people who really know their stuff are at-risk as never before. A wonderful community model for delivering social care is under serious threat, and all without a word of public consultation.

Social care should be as sustainably funded, prioritized and planned for as health and education in B.C. That’s how we achieve economic prosperity. It’s how we strengthen our communities and engage people to live their best lives. We’re as committed to the government’s dream of reducing poverty, improving child care and responding more effectively to mental health and addiction as they are.

But every day is a fight to stay alive in this sector. The new threats looming on so many fronts are a painful reminder that people still don’t grasp that our work is the foundation of community social care in B.C. Our non-profit model was created for the task. You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.

Jody Paterson is executive director of the Board Voice Society of B.C., representing volunteer boards and senior staff of B.C. community non-profits serving the social determinants of health. The irony isn’t lost on her that March is Community Social Services Awareness Month.