There is a better social profit representation in the government with Niki Sharma’s election as the Parliamentary Secretary for Community Development and Non-Profits. If you’re working for the non-profit sector and wish to be recognized more as a partner in the community with the government, then this episode is for you. Due to the increasing recognition of social profits in its indispensable role for the communities’ betterment, there are many points of improvement we need to work on. Niki believes that gathering hard data and improving communication are crucial to identify what steps should be taken next. Dive in and listen to Douglas Nelson’s interview with Niki to better grasp the various challenges that face the social profit sector and how best they should be addressed.
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Social Profit Representation In Government With Niki Sharma
In this episode, we have a special guest. Niki Sharma was elected MLA for Vancouver-Hastings in 2020. She was subsequently named Parliamentary Secretary for Community Development and Non-Profits. Welcome to the show.
Thank you. It’s so great to be here.
As someone who works in the sector and has made my career in the sector for many years, I want to start with how great it was to see the government recognizing the importance of not-for-profits in the course of society and the course of government. It feels like we’ve got someone at the table now. Have you been hearing that from others in the sector?
I certainly have and it’s not lost on me the years of advocacy that the sector has had to get a voice inside of government and my role. I do hear that a lot from people that they’re grateful that the government recognized that the sector itself needs representation within the government. I’m very excited about the role and I take it with a great deal of responsibility because I know that it’s been needed for a long time.
Prior to being elected in 2020, you had been involved in the not-for-profit sector in lots of different ways over the course of your career. You understood many of the issues facing the sector prior to the pandemic. What did you take with you into this role as Parliamentary Secretary?Communicate in a clear voice what you think is needed to be said for the common good. Click To Tweet
Non-profits have probably been part of my life since I was a teenager in different ways. I maybe volunteered for the first time or took part in organizing non-profits for different issues that I cared about. Even when I switched to practicing law, I found myself working with laws for non-profits through my work. I learned so much. To me, it’s the solidarity of being with people that are there to make the world better, and to focus their energy and efforts on the community, and how to build up a better community. I’ve always thrived and learned a lot from people in the sector with different roles. I also see the struggles of how responding to grants, programming, pressures and the need in the community. I know, far too often, non-profits are responding to things that are left out of the normal economy and the for-profit sector. The needs are usually so high and dedicated people are responding to that as best they can. I’ve felt and seen that throughout my life and learned a lot.
One thing the pandemic has taught us or shown us about the sector, we know, and we talked to people all the time about our sector ends up solving problems that are too complicated for other areas of the economy or other areas of society to solve. If there was a simple solution, likely the private sector would have come up with an option or there would be a program the government could put in place, but the not-for-profit sector is often at that convergence of complex issues that are difficult to solve, which makes it hard to say track progress in some areas and communicate the value of the sector.
We’ve seen in 2020 that this is what we’re here for, is to address issues of connecting people and supporting people through what have been challenging times. I’m curious, as a new MLA, you’re elected. You’ve got this mandate for community development and working with not non-profits. Have you been surprised at what you’ve heard from your colleagues, both in government and in the whole legislature about what their views of the sector are?
I don’t think I’ve been surprised. There’s this new energy and I know it’s not new to less people in the sector, but there’s a new conversation that’s emerging that I’m excited about, which is looking at non-profits as a sector and how they contribute to the province. I see that a big part of my role is communicating that within the government. The 86,000 people that are employed in the sector and the contributions that they make. What is evolving and I’m hoping that we can continue to progress on, is trying to look at all those social impacts that are for the good that non-profits have for a society that aren’t normal markers in our decision-making that come to government.
Those are the kind of conversations that I’ve been having with ministers and with other MLA’s, thinking about non-profits as a sector and how much we rely on them as government. As partners, to solve those complicated problems that reach into communities where we can’t reach into, and be on the front lines of those issues. That conversation about looking at it as a sector is something that’s a little bit new to how we operate as a government. I’m excited about that conversation. That’s what I’ve been trying to push every time I talk.
Is there something that you wish was in the MLA Orientation Manual for all MLAs that they could know about the non-profit sector?
It’s the kind of top-line data that talks about the bigger contribution that non-profits have as a province. I’m fortunate to work with lots of people that come from non-profits and the different issues that they’ve seen in the community. The understanding is there about the need, but I don’t think we often take a look to think about, for example, what would the province be like if we didn’t have the non-profit sector? If it’s true that so many of them are endangered during COVID, what does that mean for our province and our society, and that overall view of the contributions that are often focused on the issue on the front lines, and not with tons of people celebrating it in the way that it should? MLAs, if we can get it to a place as government where we think about non-profits in general as our partner in communities, that would be an important thing perspective-wise, rather than granting agents or stakeholders or the one-on-one interactions the ministries might have with them. That’s the perspective MLAs were getting to start to think about.
That partners in community concept is important. It’s a message that not just MLAs, but it would be great if everyone in the province saw the sector in that role as well. Having been on both sides of the table in government and in the sector, is there any advice you would give to board members or executive directors of social profit organizations that are wanting to demonstrate that they’re a partner in the community with the government?
We have some of the strongest advocates probably in the province that are leading organizations. With the meetings I’ve been having, I’ve been impressed with the focus and the way that our organizations and leaders of organizations can direct their advocacy issues that they think will have the most benefit for their organization. It’ll be interesting to see how we can channel that effective skills of advocating for an issue for the sector in general. There are some organizations that are stepping into that role a little bit thinking about how we do government relations as a sector. Leaders in different organizations will probably require a lot of working together to figure out what is that common issue amongst us all that I can champion as my role to take the government and say, “Here’s the thing that we could fix that would help all of the sectors.” I see that sometimes emerges with organizations, but that effective ability to the home skills of advocacy, if we can move it to the sector-wide, it can help me understand what exactly I can go in with to make the broadest impact.
The most successful organizations do a good job of telling that big picture story about their missions. For some reason, it seems to be challenging for the sector to tell that big picture story as a sector rather than for the individual missions. Usually, when I have guests on the show, I ask the CEOs, “What drives you crazy about the sector? What drives you crazy about your role?” I won’t put you in the position of answering that question but I’ll ask, what does the non-profit sector in British Columbia need to do better?Start having conversations in a way that's more impactful. Click To Tweet
Building off what I said before, which is the idea of coming together on common issues for the sector and communicating in a clear voice about what’s needed. There are segments that are doing that well, but I’m digging into figuring out what’s the data on one of those sectors at, what are the key issues that would require change. There’s such a huge scale. There are smaller non-profits and bigger non-profits and there’s a difference. That would be one thing I would say is that what are the key issues that are focused on that could do the best for improving the sector. I’m not saying it’s not out there, but internally as a government, we have to develop our skillset in terms of treating the sector with the importance that it has. Coming with that will be something that comes back at us that says, “If you’re going to look at us as such an important part of the province, here are the key issues that need to change.” We have to work on both sides of that.
It’s a new way for the government to interact with the sector because the government has deep relationships with many individual organizations and sometimes coalitions of organizations addressing a specific issue, but hasn’t until into your role was created and had that focus of the non-profit sector as a single entity. That’s a new muscle for everybody to be working on. You’ve mentioned a couple of times being new to your role and it is in the first couple of months, so I fully accept that. COVID response for the sector is part of what’s in your mandate letter. It’s something that you’ve talked about when you’ve talked about your role. What are you hearing from organizations about how they’re responding to the pandemic?
I hear many sides of this COVID issue. It hit just like everybody all at once in organizations across the board, but the other thing that hit was rising community need and demand for their services at the same time. The challenges that I’ve been hearing about were not only responding to that rising community need, but also the issues about putting all of your resources onto the frontline, which is the driver for non-profits. Some are not having the reserves to do things like transforming their stuff to virtual service delivery or the infrastructure to do that. That being an extra burden on some and also meeting the higher demands. I also hear some that maybe are supported more by government funding, so their funding may have during COVID. There are others that may have relied on fundraising events. Big parts of their donor base relied on things that we’re not able to do right now.
What are the longer-term impacts of that in terms of their viability as a non-profit and what happens to the community? Some interesting research that the Women’s Health Foundation is taking a look at is the gendered aspect of impact. The sector is employed by a lot of women, but also the services that are provided also are so important to women in communities. What happens if we have a sector that is in trouble through COVID? There are specific things that we’re digging into about how our government programs are able to help the sector. What are we missing in terms of the specific needs of the sector when it comes to our COVID recovery that will take a while? Those are all the things that I’m learning and listening to right now.
The response and recovery are probably a large part of your conversations. As you’re hearing how the different organizations in the sector operate, is there anything that’s surprised you or that’s jumped out at you like, “I didn’t realize that?”
One of the things that I’m interested in as the research develops is the gendered aspect of some of the surface delivery. You can’t work in the non-profit sector without knowing that it employs a lot of women leadership. I think that’s true but the fact that the services that they provide aren’t available has a disproportionate effect on women and the needs in some of the research that I’ve been reading. Maybe it shouldn’t have, but I never thought of that angle before about service delivery and the important impacts that it might have. That was one thing. A lot of the challenges that the non-profits face during COVID are heightened versions of what happens all the time, and not being a stranger to that in terms of managing programs and non-profits, and understanding the demands and the pressures. I certainly have that lived experience and I can’t imagine how COVID has impacted that.
We’ve seen organizations that were struggling either with their operations or with their board. The board management dynamic or their revenue prior to the pandemic has exacerbated those problems. It’s made difficult situations even harder. We’ve seen a lot of organizations thrive and being able to adapt to the change. To your point about thinking about the sector, I wonder how we could do a better job of collecting the learnings from those organizations that have been able to make this pivot, whether it’s something like an organization like MOSAIC, taking all of the programs online, or the Greater Vancouver Food Bank that’s done such an incredible job. Their revenue is way up, but their demand far exceeds that increase, but they’ve done an incredible job of delivering in a hands-on way.
From your perspective, what can we be doing better to highlight those things that are working? As somebody who spent my career in the sector and I love the sector. A lot of the great successful things that leaders do and organizations do get lost in the “help us, the sector is struggling” messaging. While it’s very real for those organizations that are feeling it, it drowns out the great work that so many others are doing.
It’s something that is percolating my brain right now that I’ve heard from so many people, which is this idea of communication internally within government and across the sector. The fact that so many organizations, especially now, are focused on the groundwork that looking up sometimes is an impossibility with all the stresses and challenges. That idea that you’re saying about what are the best practices and how do we communicate them, I see that within government too, because each ministry might have their relationship with non-profits, there might be a way they fund or the way they do things that maybe is not a best practice or maybe it is, but how are they communicating it across ministries.
It happens on that end too. There are two things that come to my mind in terms of solving it so far and I’m so open to learning from people about what they think, but one is communication and one is data. There’s this idea that as a government entity and maybe the sector, that higher level data sometimes isn’t developed, so we can’t tell those stories as well, because what we don’t see, we can’t understand. There is something about it that I’m thinking about. Some organizers have seen the need to go in and get the data, but maybe we need to develop that a little better to understand.Keep gathering information because what we don't see, we can't understand. Click To Tweet
That’s a very polite way of you saying to the sector, “Help me, help you. Tell me what’s working, tell me what’s going on so I can be that advocate.” It is tough. There’s been a lot of great surveying and research that’s been done in the sector and the province over the last number of months, but it’s perceptual. “How are you feeling? What’s your perception of what’s happening to your organization?” The hard data isn’t there and we won’t know the financial implications of this for the sector until 2022 or early 2023, the way organizations file. It’s a good reminder that we need to be ready and we should be looking at that hard data for the sector.
One of the things that I’ve also noticed and this is a little bit onto your previous questions that I didn’t address yet, which is that there’s something about things being lost in translation between government and non-profits. Another thing that I hear is the perspective of non-profits on the ground seeing the amazing work that they’re delivering and able to accomplish. Being restricted by the confines of the funding relationship or what’s funded and what’s not funded, and feeling a little bit handcuffed about what they can do, even though they know that this thing would be the answer if they could do it. There is something about how government understands impact and value. How it’s seen on the ground and whether or not we’re missing something as a government when we’re not the way we fund things in the way we look at things. Whether some of the smaller non-profits not having maybe the ability to do the government relations side of their work, which is convincing the government that what they’re doing is something that’s worth funding, it’s that tension that I hear too.
The government is not monolithic. In your role, you have seen not-for-profits that have relationships with several different ministries at the same time or some parts of the sector are dealing with this minister and others with other ministers. Is there a way for organizations to do a better job of helping government communicate with itself about how it’s funded?
There’s a big scope for that conversation. I’m intending for that to be part of something that I can do with my role is to understand that a little bit better, or figure out how we measure success or how we look at the impact. That’s a huge conversation and it’ll probably take years to change. What I’m hopeful for is that what I’m able to do in the time that I have is set things in motion that will continue to improve that relationship.
The way the government works is different than the way the sector works. I don’t mean that good or bad, they’re just different. Often, they can collide in ways that make people feel like they’re not understood or the sector is not being responsive, or we don’t know who to talk to at the government and those kinds of things happen. Even having the conversation that this is an issue is probably going to lower some of those barriers.
One of the benefits of being new to this role and the role being new is that we can start to have these conversations in a way that’s more impactful. The scope is so broad. We’ll be able to figure out tangible things that we can make better.
This is a different way of asking a similar question, but as someone who knows the sector well, coming into this role, is there one particular issue or one part of your mandate you’re excited to get to deal with like, “Finally, I get to?”
I would say all of it and I don’t mean that to be the answer that a politician would give. I’m quite excited about a lot of parts of it because I’ve seen the need so much in the community that I feel like being a channel that’s not two ways will be important. There are particular things that every mandate letter was given that are also important because of the experience that I’ve had as a person is thinking about anti-racism in our work. That has the scope in the non-profit sector in a lot of ways. Having worked in a non-profit, having seen government, and how government funding works in different ways. I think that’s a big conversation.
It’s one that I know pockets are starting to have and people are starting to think about, but it’s super important because there’s some work about how much funding goes to indigenous-led organizations or how much funding goes to organizations that are maybe run by people of color. Those questions are important and it goes the other way like, “How does the non-profit sector reflect the communities that they’re serving and how can we do better about that?” That’s one of the aspects of it. There’s a lot to dig in there.
There’s been some great work in the sector with the Aboriginal Circle and giving the Kris Archie leads. The Real Estate Foundation of BC has taken a fairly active and proactive stand on that. I’m encouraged to see that those conversations are happening and I’m hopeful that some of the issues you outlined are going to be addressed in a positive way as a part of the recovery coming out of this pandemic. As we’re coming to the end of our conversation, I wanted to conclude on a final question about what your hope is for the sector as the province, the country, and the world moves through this pandemic, and we’ll say is heading towards recovery from the pandemic. What are you most optimistic about when you look at the scope of your role?
I’m most optimistic about the people that choose to do the work in the sector. When I’ve worked with people, they’re some of the best human beings on the planet that have given their life and committed their lives to make our communities better. If you have that group of people that are coming together to solve issues, the amount of impact that they can have, the scarcest of resources and the impact they can have always gives me hope when I hear stories about that, and how they’ve been able to meet the needs of their community under such amazing circumstances.
I also think that there’s something about this idea that we as a province can step into this leadership role led by the non-profits, setting a base or setting the stage for a conversation about the importance of the sector, and looking at it in a way that’s new internally in government. I’m excited about that and hopeful about that because I feel like we’re getting to different stages from the uprising that’s been happening with non-profits that we’re there. We’re ready. We’re at the beginning, but there’s something there to hold onto. That to me is such a needed and important conversation. As a society, we need to understand how we value work that is so important but doesn’t show up in the GDP in the same way. It does, but it does it in a traditional way. That’s an exciting conversation for me to be a part of.
As a member of the sector, I’m pleased that you’re there to lead that conversation in government and in the sector. Niki Sharma, thank you so much for being on the show. All the best in your important work.
Thank you. I look forward to connecting in the future. I also want to say, we’re easy to get ahold of. Anybody that’s reading that wants to give me their thoughts or has something that they think I should read or know about, you can look me up and send me that information.
Thank you so much.
About Niki Sharma