CCVO Op-Ed: A Little Soul Food Would Truly Help

A Little Soul Food Would Truly Help

Calgary Herald – September 27, 2004

Paul Martin's external advisory committee on cities, led by former B.C. premier Mike Harcourt, is visiting Calgary today to get some advice on what can be done to ensure "our municipalities are vibrant, dynamic, healthy places to live."

I hope Harcourt will leave Calgary with this simple message: Building vibrant, dynamic and healthy communities goes beyond bricks, mortar and roads. A vibrant community is created by the interest, concern and action of our voluntary sector.

There's no question we are all affected by poor roads, inadequate transit and other physical infrastructure concerns. Yet, all too often, other community concerns, such as affordable housing, safe neighbourhoods and abundant green spaces are not recognized as equally important.

Alongside governments, the voluntary sector within a city or community is most often responsible for attending to these community concerns. Calgary's voluntary sector provides our community with services and activities that raise our quality of life: after-school sports for our kids; churches, mosques, temples and synagogues so we can practice our faith, food and clothing for the homeless, arts and cultural activities for the whole community.

There are more than 2,500 registered charities, 4,000 non-profit organizations and thousands of volunteers and employees in Calgary's voluntary sector. Nationwide, there are 161,000 charities and non-profits reporting a total membership of 139 million people (many belong to more than one organization).

But these organizations are struggling. In Statistics Canada's 2004 National Survey of Nonprofit and Voluntary Organizations, just more than one-half of organizations surveyed reported having problems planning for the future, recruiting most suitable volunteers and obtaining board members. And just less than one-half of all organizations reported problems with retaining volunteers, obtaining funding from government, foundations or individual donors.

To make Calgary a great community for all citizens, we need to ensure the voluntary sector, does not get left out of the conversation. To achieve this, the voluntary sector must be at the table when governments discuss future directions. The voluntary sector has the knowledge base, built on frontline experience in the community, to represent the human piece of the infrastructure discussion. In addition, the sector is a reflection of the community's concerns. Organizations arise in response to local need.

There has been progress. The City of Calgary has engaged the sector in Imagine Calgary, which is helping to develop a 20-year vision. The federal government has created and supports the Voluntary Sector Initiative and is including the voice of the sector at the table for the Cities Secretariat.

But we need to do more. Let's dig deeper to use the voluntary sector's front line experience to make the right choices for our community. Let's find new ways to support the work being done in our schools, hospitals, shelters and community halls.

Cities are not only made up of physical infrastructure; a city's soul is the people who live in it, the human infrastructure. Invest in that infrastructure and we can have vibrant, dynamic and healthy communities.

- Katherine van Kooy
President and CEO, Calgary Chamber of Voluntary Organizations