The Evolving Role of Not-For-Profits

“Keep calm and carry on.”
“Think positive thoughts.”
“Be the change you want to see.”

Yeah, right. What a joke. Let’s be serious – the vultures of this world – the scavengers that pick at the meek, the fallen, the innocent – they are the ones that get what they want.

The do-gooder is dismissed; the truth teller is branded a whistleblower; the white man is still in power; corporations run the world; and the ones that are meant to protect and represent us are robbing and hurting us.

We are living in a cesspool of greed, waste and destruction. Oh, and to top it all off, the world’s leading climate scientists are yelling from the top of their lungs that we are all going to die if we don’t make some big changes, fast.

And we can’t do a damn thing about it. Or can we?

For decades, the only vestige of hope has been through the tireless efforts of charities, non-profit organizations (NFPs), and non-government organizations (NGOs); for the sake of simplicity, I will lump all three as NFPs. They have fought for the issues that matter – environmentalism, equity, social justice, health – and have successfully changed policies, conducted groundbreaking research studies, broadened education and awareness, and created a platform for change.

Before I dive further into the work of NFPs, I’d like a moment to reflect on the role of Government. In a democratic society like ours, the Government is meant to protect the rights and freedoms of individuals, redistribute income and resources, provide collective public goods, and generally guide the development of society. That is what the government is supposed to do. But, because of small egos and fear mongering tactics, the western world has emphatically adopted a brand of authoritarian and hypocritical capitalism. Like a parasite, this economic model has buried into the veins of our democracy and effectively turned the Government into a puppet for industry – providing biased subsidies to select corporate sectors, developing a systemically discriminatory justice system, reprioritizing the economy over the people, and so on. The relationship between industry and government has led to a corporatocracy – an economic and political system controlled by corporations or corporate interests. In other words, when pesky things get in the way of making more money, like basic human rights, the Government turns a blind eye.

As a result, NFPs have filled in the moral gap that is lacking in our Government and has acted as society’s conscience. Wedged between Industry and Government, NFPs are left cleaning up the mess and oftentimes take on critical care roles – like food banks; safe-injection sites; and homeless shelters. Here is the problem; Industry has the resources and time, but lacks heart; Government has the resources and heart (sometimes), but lacks the time given our election cycles; NFPs have the heart and time, but lack the resources. As a business model, it is foolish to think that heartless billionaires and egomaniacs will easily part with their resources to support NFPs. So, like a stray dog, NFPs have been forced to beg for scraps from annual corporate and government budgets. And if they are lucky, they can breathe a sigh of relief for another quarter from the crumbs they are given. More time is spent on determining how to keep the lights on than it is on changing the world. Unfortunately, this has compromised the effectiveness of many NFPs as they are forced to muffle their voices in exchange for keeping their operations alive. In effect, their messaging becomes diluted and they are slowly pulled into the centrifugal corporate force.

As if things weren’t bad enough – let’s throw a global pandemic in the mix. With the devastation of COVID-19, sourcing funding and ensuring financial security has become near impossible and we will likely lose many NFPs in the next few years.

This business model has to change. So how do NFPs move forward?

The short answer: if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em- but do it better.

Let’s begin by reviewing the current model. Most NFPs began with a few individuals who wanted to make a change. At this point, their heart is full, their objectives are clear, and they are driven. They built their network with the help of family and friends and eventually grew their influence by acquiring the trust and intrigue from other like minded and often well-positioned individuals. They have a couple of big wins, grow their little operation, and things are looking pretty good. At this point, they are hopeful and energized. Eventually, there is a breaking point where serious and consistent money is needed to execute their big dreams, so they think of ways to make money by creating publications, hosting annual events, conferences, and awards, or creating a membership structure.

They then get bogged down in the administrative processes of operating a NFP and chasing down new members or sponsorship. At this point, they are uninspired, worn-down, and willing to settle for what they can get – even if it means the enemy. Before you know it, a representative from Coca Cola is speaking at an anti-plastics convention because they gave a donation you can’t refuse. PS. Coca-Cola is named the world’s worst plastic polluter.

The realities of the world steep into their altruism. They are then forced to compromise their vision…. or let it go completely. Sound familiar?

Instead of relying on the wrong people to do the right thing, NFPs must play at the corporate table. Instead of seeking a handout, seek a partnership. NFPs may not have as many resources and benefits as their for-profit counterparts, but the ones that they do have are richer in knowledge, opportunities, and passion: access to government grants and incentives, collaborative partnerships, positive profile in the market, and lack of bureaucracy. Until society elevates to a higher purpose, we have to play the money game. In other words, doing good for the sake of doing good isn’t enough to sustain an organization.

NFPs need to demonstrate their value. What is the return on investment? It isn’t always money. As an NFP, you are in a unique position; you have identified a problem and you have some ideas on how to fix it. You likely have a body of research, case studies, and allies. You can offer a suite of services to industry and government that may move them
in the right direction. The ROI could be assisting them research & development; diversifying their service offerings; building their market reputation through collaborative campaigns; creating new programs or business models; developing a demonstration project, etc. Real results.

All of this to say – NFPs must shift from being primarily campaigners, activists, and educators to project managers, consultants, and market leaders. Set the new standard. Show them what is possible. We already have a lifetime of information; realistically, everyone knows what is good, what is bad, and how to make things better – they just don’t want to because it disrupts their business, lifestyle, or bank account. So as an NFP, your job is to give them an offer they can’t refuse.

That’s what I did. A few of us who came from the corporate world decided to start an NFP called the Transformation Initiative. I’ll tell you about that in the next issue…

So, if you, like me, find yourself working at an NFP, a few words of advice:

“Keep calm and carry on.”
“Think positive thoughts.”
“Be the change you want to see.”

Natasha Arsenijevich (B.E.S, M.E.S) is a sustainability leader and business strategist with expertise in sustainable built environments, business and strategy development, agriculture and food studies, women’s studies, and professional writing. She has developed an award-winning sustainability program and has worked on a number of innovative market leading projects. Natasha is currently the Executive Director of The Transformation Initiative, a Canadian not-for-profit agency that seeks to catalyze transformative change across Canada’s core sectors and actualize a low carbon, circular, and resilient economy. She also serves on the Board of Directors for Pollution Probe, one of Canada’s first charitable environmental organizations. Her passion for the environment extends beyond education and employment experiences; she strives every day to make her personal life a representation of sustainability and ecological equity.