Time for Change: No to the Casualisation of Nonprofit Work

Only bold approaches and statements help the non-profit sector thrive.

However bold and non-profit are rarely  found in the same sentence, said Rick Cohen in his opening address at the Ontario Non Profit Network Conference (Oct 21, 2015).  Bold engages in public policies, going beyond the boundaries and common perception of what non-profits should be.

One of the themes explored at this year ONN Conference evolved around social enterprise models. The choice of theme, however, did not discourage Cohen from saying that Ontario may not benefit from social enterprises as much as they would like to think, based on what his perception of what US experiences is have told us. In the USA, Cohen noted, where for-profit social enterprise objectives are not as ambiguous as here, the public gains are minimized not only by social enterprises (SE) not being more successful with service delivery at a cost but by not being required to create new jobs. One aspect SEs thrive well in is appropriation of government contracts.  According to Cohen who has been covering the non profits (NPs) landscape in the USA for over 40 years, first as a government official and then as journalist and a watchdog,  when negotiating contracts social enterprises tend to bring into conversation assumptions about “non-profits inefficiencies” or “fraud and lack of accountability”.  Historical biases shaping perceptions about  work being done by NPs are still strong, Cohen continued, meaning that there is belief that  the NPs deliverables are less professional, done by  people with “big hearts but no training”. In addition, NPs, by not resisting governments and foundations salary cuts, in fact help precarious work to survive. Cohen called it ”casualisation of non –profit work” meaning that the work, perceived as  causal  and easily done by whomever shows up at the doors can be performed by this or that untrained person. Cohen applauded the ONN’s efforts to promote a decent work  platform as a an example of bold statements Ontario NP sector needs.

But Cohen is not alone and it might be that, in fact, we have a momentum now for this conversation to to take place. Very recently report published by the Social Planning Network of Ontario (SPNO) indicates that an on-going “casualisation of non –profit work” is happening in Ontario too. Joey Edwardh & Peter Clutterbuck in Decent Work in the Non-profit Community Services Sector in Ontario (Sept, 2015) provide ample evidence for precarious state of employment: disproportionate availability of part time or contract paired with disproportionately low wages. Additionally, the sector encourages non-unionized work because it feels being squeezed between “permanent temporariness” (Baines et al., 2014, p. 81) and “a new public management” introduced in 1990s that supports limited, project-based investments only.  As a result, precariousness of employment will continue patched temporarily by volunteers (according to the ONN data over 5 million volunteers engaged annually in Ontario only) who are further eroding their hopes for better pay and permanence. Yet, “the rapid growth in the low wage and less stable non-profit sector over the last 20 years parallels reduced service provision in the relatively higher wage and more stable employment of the public sector” (pg. 12).  In addition, women employed by NP sector are largely overrepresented. In Metro Toronto Area only “women make up 47.6% of the overall labour force but 84.4% of the non-profit labour force” (pg. 10) so this sad state of affairs affects not only individuals but also health and well being of families and children. While the report provides a number of useful recommendations – from moving the minimum wage to $15/hr (hoping to eventually reach the living wage, in the GTA currently estimated at $18.52) and ensuring that the minimum vacation time will available (above the average stress experienced in the NPs frontline work), some regulatory changes, such as reducing barriers to unionization, are required.

When we think bold, maybe this is where the bold needs to happen first. Instead of strategizing about NPs external reach (e.g. influencing public policies) decent work – stable, non-contracted, competitively paid and reasonably benefited  should be available first.  Competitive attracts competent. And competent innovates.

Ten years ago the the number one impediment to social innovation in Canada was identified as lack of investments into the sector (Goldenberg, M., 2004).   Since then many social innovation were implemented worldwide ensuring that the well paid jobs are created along with thriving business with social mission in socially-responsible investing, micro-financing, fair trade, smart streets, field-to-table programs and restorative justice. Most of them have sprouted in Europe, many in the US, but Canada was largely lagging behind. With current change of government it is easy to anticipate more movement in the social innovation area. Additionally, as the government has commitment to “open” concepts, including the open data strategies, NP, if they want to remain relevant and competitive, will need to attract analytical, tech -savvy force interested in engaging with big/ open data. In other words,  as the current Canadian political zeitgeist is re-branding Canada, so NPs, as an extension of government’s reach have an opportunity now to rewrite their stories. But this time the story must begin with the HR perspective in mind, from the inside out.

Let us assume that in four years opportunities for social innovation in Ontario and Canada will multiply. And let’s assume that the number of new social enterprises and new NPs entering the field and potentially competing with existing NPs will be on the rise too.  Let us accept the evidence that only permanent, competitively salaried work will attract individuals with a right mix of  policy mindfulness, technological savvy and social innovation. Finally, let us us be bold and entertain an idea that funding models that are not properly inverted, that is starting from the job description/compensation first leading to program design and to long term delivery (3+ years), should be rejected.

Yet, even without changes in funding structures NPs will need to find creative ways to  attract high-end social capital to remain relevant.  Again, it is not the external change that will direct the change (the “IT Revolution” happened 25 years ago) as much as visionary thinking that will lead the sector to  “a new self-image, not just as the caring sector but as the creative sector…. (because) It will not be taken seriously so long as it is identified by what it is not (non-governmental, not-for-profit), which conveys no sense of how it adds value to our lives, nor by the language of deprivation (helping people who are “vulnerable” or “under-privileged” or “falling through the cracks”). It does those things, of course, and they are important, but they are rooted in a concept of charity and resignation that do not reflect the dynamism of the community sector today, nor the hope and potential of what it can contribute tomorrow (Brodhead, 2010, p. 23).

A practical application of a bold statement? Perhaps.

Let’s be bold enough to demand competitively paid to be added to the creative, technologically savvy and innovative we already are.



  • Baines, D., Campey, J., Cunningham, I., and Shields, J. (2014). Not profiting from precarity: The work of non-profit service delivery and creation of precariousness. Just Labour: Canadian Journal of Work and Society. Toronto: Centre for Research on Work and Society, York University, Autumn, Vol. 22, pp. 74-93.
  • Brodhead, T. (2010). On not letting a good crisis go to waste: An innovation agenda for Canada’s community sector. The Philanthropist, 23(1), 3–26.
  • Edwardh, J., Clutterbuck, P. (2015), Decent Work in the Non-profit Community Services Sector in Ontario: Submission to the Changing Workplace Review Special Advisors. Social Planning Network of Ontario.
  • Goldenberg, M. (2004), Social Innovation in Canada How the non-profit sector serves Canadians . . . and how it can serve them better. Canadian Policy Research Networks Inc. (CPRN) Retrieved September 28th 2015  from http://www.cprn.org/documents/33235_en.pdf
  • Goldenberg, M. (2010). Reflections on social innovation. The Philanthropist, 23(3), 207-218.

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