MDB Insight Blog


Today’s Dynamic Community Benefit Sector

#WednesdayswithMDBInsight – This week Karen Smith, Senior Consultant – Business Development, talks about today’s dynamic community benefit sector.

Prior to joining MDB Insight I spent more than 25 years working in the community benefit (aka not-for-profit) sector. It contains a vast array of diverse organizations doing mission-driven work that includes just about every conceivable aspect of health, education, and social services. Within the sector are organizations feeding and housing people, providing treatment and supports, and tackling a range of vital issues specific to families, seniors, women, children, and newcomers, among others. Not-for-profits offer programs for everything from first aid to recreation, sharing not only an operational model that isn’t profit-driven but also a purpose tied to community service or benefit.

This sector includes many social enterprises, which are defined by the Social Enterprise Council of Canada (SECC) as “community-based businesses that sell goods or services in the market place to achieve a social, cultural and/or environmental purpose; they reinvest their profits to maximize their social mission”. Ontario alone reportedly has about 10,000 of these social enterprises, earning $489 million in total revenues annually1 and employing more than 160,000 people, but overall quantification and measurement of social enterprise in Canada remains elusive.

These organizations pursue some of the same opportunities and face many of the same challenges experienced within the private and public sectors. From workforce development issues and evolving policy requirements to the need for thoughtful planning and strategic development, what’s on their radar intersects with many of MDB Insight’s core practice areas and often mirrors that of our private and public sector clients. These organizations can be small, local agencies or large, international concerns. Many are like microcosms of communities, with sizeable payrolls, multiple departments, and, importantly, economic pressures that drive daily decision-making. They are mission-driven, and understandably reflect the characteristics of the communities they serve.

An Economic Driver

The sector is often misunderstood and its contributions to our social fabric and quality of life are largely undervalued. Estimates vary between Imagine Canada2 saying charities and registered non-profits represent more than 8% of Canada’s GDP (in excess of $150 billion) and Blumberg’s Snapshot of the Canadian Charity Sector (March 2017) which reported $251 billion in total revenue for registered charities (13.3% of GDP). The sector employs some 2 million people and coordinates the work of approximately 13 million volunteers contributing nearly 2 billion hours of time annually (with an average volunteer contribution of 3 hours/week that’s the equivalent of 1 million full-time jobs). In 2015, Imagine Canada’s Chief Economist Brian Emmett and co-author Geoffrey Emmett invited Canadians, governments, businesses and communities to “not only think of charities as purpose driven but also as an essential component driving Canada’s economy”3.

Innovation Despite Challenges

For these and other reasons it’s important to understand the challenges facing this vital sector. Overarching issues range from the sustainability related to volunteerism and charitable giving in Canada to the policy shifts and new or revised expectations of government. Service-specific challenges include talent attraction and retention exacerbated by traditionally lower-paying positions and the increased needs of an aging population. We expect a lot from this sector (just imagine the challenges of rapidly mobilizing Canada’s settlement sector to welcome thousands of new Syrian refugees in a matter of weeks). Many community benefit organizations operate at or beyond service capacity, compete vigorously for donations, and count on exceptional performance from workers with unenviable caseloads and typically sub-par benefits when compared to other sectors.

Despite these challenges, there is no shortage of innovation coming from the community benefit sector. The arts and culture realm, for example, offers ample evidence of cutting-edge programming and bold partnerships with the public and private sectors. The growth of creative cultural economies in many communities has been actively supported and championed by those sharing the best of Canadian arts and culture, digital media, and innovative technology. Organizations working on climate change, First Nations issues, palliative care, and drug legalization/harm reduction have also been at the forefront of national priorities in recent years.

If the old adage about necessity being the mother of invention is true, the community benefit sector has certainly played its part. With extremely tight budgets, and often managing wait lists for their services, many organizations have had to be creative in their approach to everything from revenue generation to worker retention. The sector’s achievements in social innovation range from early childcare initiatives to community theatre. Its contributions have also included extensive local knowledge applied across a range of pilot projects, joint ventures, new programs and models for outreach and engagement. Many organizations have served as incubators for innovative programming, while others have contributed extensively to learning opportunities by offering internships, apprenticeships and student work placements. 

The value of the community benefit sector is unmistakable, with contributions that touch individuals, neighbourhoods, communities, and regions. Its impact is felt from coast to coast to coast and beyond. As we learn from the sector’s innovative practices and considerable accomplishments, it’s important to look for opportunities to support the sector and ensure it can continue to serve its many stakeholders effectively. Public and private sector partnerships with those in the sector, the embrace of local communities, and our individual contributions of time and resources are wise investments. I’m grateful for MDB Insight’s ongoing support of employee volunteerism and community involvement, and for the firm’s commitment to corporate social responsibility. Having these embedded within a corporate mission and culture helped to make my transition from the community benefit sector a satisfying and rewarding one.

On a final note, finding ways to integrate the knowledge and contributions of the community benefit sector (including social enterprises) into economic development strategic planning, cultural planning, and workforce planning is an important challenge. Most communities have key stakeholders within the sector and their input should be sought during planning conversations as well as community engagement initiatives. There are also ongoing opportunities for private-public-community benefit partnerships and joint ventures (including social enterprise options) that shouldn’t be discounted. The sector offers a unique perspective and history as well as many innovative success stories of potential value well beyond the confines of the sector itself.

To learn more about Karen and the rest of our team, go to

Karen MDBIOur Wednesdays with MDB Insight posts (#WednesdayswithMDBInsight) feature the thinkers and doers on our team sharing ideas and talking about what’s important to us as professionals. We have very diverse backgrounds and a range of interests to share with you. We hope you’re enjoying these posts and that you will join the conversation with us and let us know what’s on your mind mid-week.

2. See
3. Imagine Canada Discussion Paper, Charities in Canada as an Economic Sector, June 2015

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