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«The Capacity Challenges of Nonprofit & Voluntary Organizations in Rural Ontario Susan Stowe Cathy Barr Working in Partnership © 2005, Imagine Canada ...»

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We’re involved with an amazing infrastructure through education, healthcare, social services, the Chamber of Commerce, seniors’ groups. It’s a large list, but it’s very active.

Competition, particularly in terms of territory, can be a problem. The effects of competition are that organizations are unwilling to work together and will not offer services in regions where there might be overlap with services offered by other organizations.

Relationships with funders Many rural organizations prepare grant proposals or approach organizations or foundations for funding, but few appear to think of these activities in terms of relationship building. One organization spoke of building a relationship with the Ontario Trillium Foundation and two other funders. These relationships were the result of working together on a project that involved delivering workshops across the country. This partnership has been very beneficial to each of the organizations, especially from a learning perspective.

Relationships with the media The nonprofit leaders we spoke to told us that it is really important for rural organizations to have good relationships with members of the local media because they rely on them to cover local events. Poor rapport with the media can seriously damage the reputation of a rural nonprofit organization. The consequences of this are particularly grave in small rural communities.

Although most rural organizations appear to have positive relationships with the media, some interviewees expressed concern that this is changing. Many community newspapers have been taken over by large chains, with the result that there is more coverage of national and international events and less coverage of community events.

We’ve got fairly strong [relations with local media]. About 70% of the media here are community members, so they sit on a lot of the boards themselves and they tend to have a soft spot in their hearts. One thing that I’m finding, though, is that the big conglomerates are gobbling up local media and we’re starting to lose that personal touch. One local daily is a prime example. They’re really getting away The Capacity Challenges of Nonprofit and Voluntary Organizations in Rural Ontario 13 from the local stories, local coverage, and they’re printing information that’s coming from outside of the community. It’s really starting to hurt us, financially and public relations-wise.

Relationships with corporations In some rural communities, there are few corporations, perhaps only the local bank or a chain grocery store. Moreover, many interviewees told us that when they approach these businesses for funding they are told that decisions about such matters are made at head office, which is usually located in an urban area.

There are no large corporations to build relationships with. There’s the bank, but they’re not interested in local groups, and they tell you that. We have five bank branches here, but you go in there and every bank manager will say it’s a corporate decision. Wal-Mart will say it’s a corporate decision. That’s what you get all the time. We don’t have an industrial base here at all anymore.

This experience is not universal, however. Nonprofit organizations in some rural communities have been able to build very positive, beneficial relationships with corporations.

We had the bank sponsor a breakfast speaker series last year. They paid for speakers to give presentations on any number of aspects of corporate management, which is relevant for both the nonprofit sector and the for-profit sector. They paid for the breakfast, they paid for the speakers, they did quite well by us, I would say. We have other organizations looking to implement some type of corporate-wide volunteering, so they look to us for leadership and guidance on how to get their employees more involved in the community. They’re looking to improve their civic presence. I would suggest it’s mainly political, but that’s beside the point. Sometimes the end does justify the means.

Barriers to relationship building The main barrier that rural nonprofit organizations face with regard to building relationships is the amount of time and money it takes to maintain long-distance relationships. This is, not surprisingly, an especially big problem for small organizations and those located in remote areas.

Some interviewees also told us that lack of cooperation among organizations can be a problem.

This is particularly likely among organizations that provide similar services in adjacent locations.

These organizations can be reluctant to build relationships in case they “lose a piece of their pie.” Strategic planning Some rural nonprofit organizations engage in formal strategic planning processes; others do not.

Many organizations that engage in strategic planning have just recently started to do so. In general, it appears that larger organizations are the most likely to develop formal plans. Smaller organizations may have a plan that was created to obtain funding, but the plan is not regularly reviewed or updated.

The Capacity Challenges of Nonprofit and Voluntary Organizations in Rural Ontario 14 In most organizations, strategic plans are developed by staff and presented to the board of directors for review and approval. Most organizations plan for only one year at a time. They have difficulty planning for more than one year because of the duration of their funding contracts.

Larger organizations are the most likely to have a one-year, three-year, and five-year plan.

We mostly have one-year plans, because funders tend to change things quite often and without notice. So it doesn’t make a lot of sense to create a five-year plan.

What I try really, really hard to do is to be aware of the political climate, because that’s what the reality is. You have to know which way is the wind blowing. For instance, when the Harris government was first elected, we knew that the funding cuts were coming. So, at that time, we underwent a really large consultation – with the community, with board members, and with clients – and we looked at the priorities of the organization. So when the funding cuts came, we said, “We’ve done the consultation. We can say in good conscience that, although we believe these are valuable services, these are the things that have to go.” Use of technology Most of the rural nonprofit organizations that participated in this research use technology for general administrative purposes. Many use technology for word processing, spreadsheets, and presentations. All of the organizations use the Internet and email.

Only a few organizations, however, use databases. Those that do use them mostly to store information about their clients and volunteers; a few use them to keep track of funders. The extent to which databases are used depends on the size of the organization and how the organization is funded. Organizations that get most of their revenues from fundraising or membership/association fees are more likely to use a database system than are organizations that are funded mostly through government contracts or grants.

The Internet and teleconferencing services are very important for organizations that work in partnership with other organizations. Larger organizations depend on technology such as video conferencing and telecommunications when their partnerships involve organizations in regions other than their own. The cost-saving benefits of using technology include lower travel expenses and a more efficient use of staff time. There are limits, however, to how much organizations can rely on technology. For some activities, face-to-face meeting are still preferable.

We’re probably one of the most advanced organizations in the province technologically. We have every office hooked up to video and everything. The advantages are efficiency in terms of time and cost, and for people just to feel connected at that level. But it’s not the panacea. You still need the live connections. I drive about 40,000 kilometers a year just for work. Even with the technology, I can’t decrease it that much. Live presence is important. If it’s a functional meeting, technology is fine, but it doesn’t develop relationships.

The main technology challenge in rural Ontario is the lack of high-speed connections for Internet and email. Many rural organizations, particularly in Northern Ontario, are restricted to using dialup connections. This poses problems for organizations because using such slow speeds to The Capacity Challenges of Nonprofit and Voluntary Organizations in Rural Ontario 15 communicate with other organizations and funders is very time consuming for employees.

Moreover, many of the documents that need to be exchanged are much too large to be downloaded through dialup systems.

Another major problem is the cost of obtaining and maintaining hardware and software.

Technology is constantly evolving, which means that computers need to be replaced regularly, software programs need to be upgraded to the latest versions, and adequate support is required to ensure that systems function smoothly. All of these costs can outweigh the benefits and savings that can be had by using technology.

[Our major challenge is having] the money to keep it up to date. We have an amazing digital video camera, but yet we can’t afford the $1,000 per computer to get Norton Anti-virus because funders won’t consider that part of it. It’s like, “We'll give you the basics of what you need to do the projects that we’re funding.” But they consider anti-virus protection to be part of the overall organization expense.

Policy development It is difficult with a small sample to know the extent to which rural organizations in Ontario attempt to influence government policy. Those that are associated with larger national organizations are likely to let the national organization deal with policy. Smaller organizations tend to lack the resources necessary to engage in policy development. Many organizations attempt to engage with government to better their situation without participating in policy development.

Among those organizations that do attempt to influence policy, some work in conjunction with other organizations and some work directly with government. Many work only with provincial and federal governments because they believe that their local governments have little money or influence.

I’d say at the municipal level it’s just polite. They have no money. It wouldn’t even be worth approaching them for any. But we try to involve them. For example, we get the mayor to plant the trees and things. It’s mostly cooperation and awareness-raising. Provincially, we try to maintain good relations because they’re our core funders. Obviously we’re going to try to be nice.

Suggestions for building capacity and raising awareness As part of the interview process, we asked interviewees what could be done to build the capacity of rural nonprofit organizations and raise awareness about issues facing rural communities. They had four main recommendations.

1. Training. Training and education were repeatedly mentioned as key to building the capacity of rural nonprofit organizations. According to the people we interviewed, rural organizations need training in a variety of areas, including: how The Capacity Challenges of Nonprofit and Voluntary Organizations in Rural Ontario 16 to fundraise, how to prepare grant applications, and how to build networks. To be useful, however, the training needs to be both cheap and accessible.

2. Communication. A number of interviewees suggested that rural organizations should talk more about the issues facing them and their communities.

Organizations need to bring their issues to the attention of the public, the media, corporations, and government. Interviewees felt that too many rural nonprofit organizations stay silent because they are worried about losing their funding.

3. Technology. Another frequent suggestion was that funders should provide more support for technology. Technology allows rural organizations to communicate more easily and cost effectively with their staff, volunteers, and other organizations. It also reduces their isolation because, with the proper technology, even organizations at opposite ends of the province can share resources, discuss issues, and develop solutions.

4. Collaboration. Interviewees felt that rural organizations, even more than urban organizations, need to work together to share resources, raise money, develop solutions, promote rural issues, and raise awareness. Collaborations could be based on geography, with organizations in a given area banding together, or on activities, with similar types of organizations (e.g., social services organizations) working in concert.

The Capacity Challenges of Nonprofit and Voluntary Organizations in Rural Ontario 17


This study reveals that nonprofit and voluntary organizations in rural Ontario face a number of significant challenges. While many of these challenges are similar to those faced by urban organizations, others are unique. Migration out of rural areas, for example, has left rural organizations with smaller populations from which to draw their boards, staff, volunteers, and donors. At the same time, they face the high cost of serving clients over great distances and must deal with lower economies of scale. Moreover, the evidence suggests that rural organizations are likely to have a harder time than urban organizations overcoming shared problems because they have less access to funding, resources, training, and networking opportunities.

Nonprofit and voluntary organizations are an important element of Canadian society, often addressing the needs and interests of citizens that the public and private sectors do not. They improve the quality of our lives by providing us with opportunities to participate in sports, recreation, and the arts, and by addressing social and environmental issues. They also provide many of the services on which Canadians have come to depend: healthcare, childcare, eldercare, food banks, clothing closets, credit counselling, services for youth, disaster and emergency services, just to name a few. Thus, the problems faced by rural nonprofit and voluntary

organizations are not


or unimportant. They have real consequences for real people:

fewer health and social services; longer wait-times for services; fewer recreational opportunities, arts and culture options, and opportunities for citizen engagement.

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