1:1 with James Stauch
Over the course of 2019, Nicole Nakoneshny, KCI’s Lead, Knowledge + Insights, is going one-on-one with the members of our Philanthropic Trends Advisory Board to talk about the future of fundraising and philanthropy and explore What’s Next for Canada’s charitable sector.
KCI’S “WHAT’S NEXT?” INTERVIEW SERIES – JAMES STAUCH
James Stauch is the Director of the Institute for Community Prosperity. Affiliated with Mount Royal University in Calgary, the Institute’s mission is to connect learning, research and change leadership to build community and strengthen the common good.
James has had a long and varied career in the non-profit sector, having served as a foundation executive and non-profit sector consultant for the past two decades. In addition to his experience working in the field of philanthropy, James has worked extensively in program delivery and has guided or advised on a wide range of programs that support the emergence of community leadership, or that help organizations uncover new possibilities for their programming and operations in order to be strategic, authentic and enduring in their impact.
James is also the founder and director of 8th Rung, a consultancy focused on leadership and network development, policy scoping and analysis, citizen-driven strategic planning and evaluation, and helping communities, foundations and industry establish strong relationships based on equity, trust and openness. He is past Chair of the Canadian Environmental Grantmakers Network Board of Directors, a co-creator of the Arctic Funders Group and past Chair of two organizations working to build relations between philanthropy and First Peoples: The Circle on Philanthropy and Aboriginal Peoples in Canada and the San Francisco-based International Funders for Indigenous Peoples. He currently does do a publicly-available scan of trends and emerging issues for the Calgary Foundation and serves as a member of the Banff Forum.
Nicole: What is a top trend that you and your team at the Institute for Community Prosperity are keeping an eye on?
James: We are focusing most of our attention these days toward helping students and organizations think in systems. By this, I mean tackling complex challenges (social, environmental, economic, etc.) not just through the lens of a charitable system, but through a multisector approach. The non-profit sector is only one player amongst many who need to be mobilized to attack issues such as poverty, homelessness, climate change, and societal inequity, among others. The Guide to Mapping a System that we created with the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship at Oxford University further articulates this approach.
A good example of a multisector approach in this sense is the recent dramatic reduction of activities among “pay-day-lenders”. To achieve that change, it took the government to ensure there were robust and enforceable regulations to protect people from this predatory approach, it took involvement from charitable groups, and even cooperation from some banks and credit unions who made an effort to offer products that reach low-income people who need this kind of support.
Nicole: Can you elaborate more on what a multisector approach to addressing social challenges looks like, and what role the non-profit sector should have in this?
James: Let’s take the opioid crisis as an example. It is not caused by any one thing. It’s a result of multiple different factors that are fairly unique to North America, Canada in particular…and as a result, the response needs to be multi-pronged. But society in general – including the non-profit sector – tends to be fractured in our thinking about how we should address this crisis. Some groups think that a harm reduction approach – safe injection sites, for example – is necessary. Others strongly oppose this idea. Then from a policy perspective, there can be questions like should narcotics be decriminalized, a proposed solution that is quite polarizing.
Take instead, the approach that Portugal has taken. That country recently employed a multisector approach to a similar issue by uniting their health care sector, private sector, and non-profit sector, in implementing a policy to decriminalize narcotics. They quickly went from being one of the most narcotic dependent countries in the EU to the least.
Solving complex social challenges like this requires collaboration across all sectors. Even before that happens though, we in the non-profit sector need to have conversations and processes that bring us together on these issues, because right now we do have a tendency to at best work in isolation and at worst, at cross purposes.
Nicole: Picking up on that thread of needing to do things differently, we often talk about the need for innovation as we all navigate these disruptive times. How well do you think we are doing as a sector in being more innovative?
James: Overall, I’m afraid I don’t think we’re doing a great job. When we talk about social innovation for instance, I think more charities shudder at the thought than are curious about it. In most aspects of life, the reality is that you can’t keep doing things the same way forever. We’ve had ideas of how to solve poverty for hundreds of years in some cases, and it’s just been scratching at the surface. The fact that we still have appeals at Christmas for donations, toys, families going hungry, etc. is a failure of our system. One day we’ll look back on it the same way we look back on slavery, or residential schools, and ask ourselves how we ever let this happen.
That being said, there are a lot of organizations that are doing fantastic, innovative, niche work, especially local ones. I look to the groups who are doing reconciliation and public education work with Indigenous populations in Canada. Not only have they identified a cause that’s absolutely necessary, but their work is innovative in nature because the way they do it can’t be charitable in the classical, traditional way.
Also, organizations with an entrepreneurial spirit but have social consciousness built into their core values are also doing innovative work – places like collaborative breweries, B-Corps, solutions journalism, mobile community food markets, tool lending libraries, etc.
Nicole: Let’s switch gears and how shine a spotlight on Alberta specifically. Given that it’s been a challenging time economically in Alberta for the last few years, what impact has that had on charities and charitable giving in the province?
James: I think the long term trends/shifts that can be seen nation-wide have had more of an impact on the non-profit sector here in Alberta than the local economic challenges have specifically. With the fall in oil prices, we’ve seen a dramatic decline in corporate giving, relative to other places. Communities that have a strong resource sector (ex. Calgary, Fort McMurray, Grand Prairie, etc.) tend to be more reliant on corporate giving than other communities. We’ve seen community investment personnel/teams laid off and entire portfolios of community investment programs be suspended, which has really hurt corporate giving. On the other hand, we’ve seen more stability in the last 4-5 years in terms of social equity indicators. For example, it was recently announced that child poverty has decreased by half, a lot of which has happened in the last 4-5 years.
Another recent change we’ve experienced in Alberta was the increase in minimum wage. Interestingly, the non-profit sector has not been unanimously on board with this. Some charities who tend to employ young people, high school students, etc. have not been thrilled. Some have complained about the carbon tax. However, I would say the preponderance of charities – especially organizations that work in poverty alleviation or climate action – welcome these policies and see them as a step towards stability for our province.
Nicole: What do you believe are the biggest opportunities open to charities / the sector today when it comes to fundraising?
James: I think the culture that exists online presents a big fundraising opportunity for charities. Some people would argue that millennials are disengaged because they aren’t donating like we classically have for the past couple generations. However, there has been an increase in volunteer time and the joining of social movements – online or in real life – among millennials. So to say that they’re disengaged is untrue. I think the organizations that understand how to be savvy online and find ways to tap into this online culture, they have a big opportunity in front of them.
When we talk about social innovation for instance, I think more charities shudder at the thought than are curious about it. In most aspects of life, the reality is that you can’t keep doing things the same way forever.
Nicole: And from your vantage point, what are the biggest challenges facing us? Is there an issue facing the sector that relates to fundraising that isn’t getting enough attention in your opinion?
James: I’d say that social research & development funding (R&D) isn’t getting enough attention, and there isn’t enough room for charities to experiment and learn how to improve. There is a culture in this sector that cultivates anxiety among charities to take risks or to look back and examine their mistakes/shortcomings for fear of losing funding. Universities do receive government funding for research projects that explore social challenges and how we may be able to address them more effectively. However, once these studies are published, that the public has difficulty accessing readily or cheaply. There’s also no way of encouraging or ensuring these studies are even used to inform social policy. Having these barriers to this knowledge makes it tough for institutions to be innovative in their social programming.
Nicole: I’d like your take on the fact that cost of fundraising continues to be a dominant preoccupation when it comes to supporting charities. In your opinion, why is it such a pesky and persistent issue? Where does that come from and what can be done about it?
James: I think public figures Dan Pallota and organizations like Imagine Canada are doing a great job at starting some myth-busting conversations, and that should continue to happen. I do, however, think that this concern with administrative/fundraising costs is an excuse that people hide behind when they don’t want to admit that they just don’t want to donate. It’s a convenient way to deflect and avoid donating when they never intended to in the first place. The people who do give and donate to charity never seem to be concerned about this.
Nicole: What are the things that you believe should be on every charity’s agenda right now as it relates to fundraising, even if tangentially?
James: I think that every charity should be thinking about the rise of artificial intelligence. Over next decade or two, I believe this will be the most important question for humanity – even more so than climate change, poverty, inequality, etc.
I’m writing a paper on this right now with Alina Turner who is a fellow at the School of Public Policy, and she runs a machine learning enterprise. The program, called Help Seeker, monitors users’ viewing/engagement patterns, and suggests causes and charities to the person that they might be interested in based on their history, kind of like what Netflix does. It’s still in its early stages, much like the AI that currently exists. But what will happen when it outsmarts us? When will that happen? Who owns big data? What are the policies surrounding it? Humanity is at the beginning stages of figuring all this out and writing the rule book for it. We need to make sure that as AI becomes more advanced and intelligent, it does as much good and as little bad as possible.
This is why I think all sectors, including the charitable sector, must make their voices heard so the way we design this “rule book” for the future of AI is representative of everyone, and not just corporations. AI has the power to decide for us what information we will be shown, and what we won’t see, based on the data it has about us. This could make it difficult for smaller, more niche charities to be seen by potential donors if their cause doesn’t align with the average person’s profile, and they’ll fall between the cracks. This is especially true now that for most people, our portal to the world is the internet.
A great story is timeless, everyone responds to them.
Are you surprised by anything that you see happening?
There are more people inquiring about alternative ways of governing a non-profit other than boards. I’m delighted that this is happening, but surprised it’s taken so long. We’ve known for a while that boards are the number one source of stress for non-profit leaders, as there are usually big differences in political views, motivations, and values between the two.
Where do you look for inspiration?
Art inspires me. I think it was Picasso who said, “art is a lie that tells the truth”. Also, learning from different cultures and doing things outside of my comfort zone gives me energy and perspective.
Who (e.g. company, sector) outside of the NFP sector do you think has done a great job of dealing with the disruption they have faced?
The Alberta Treasury Board (ATB) is a bank in Alberta that has been around for a very long time. Up until about 10 years ago, they had a reputation of being very rural, existing mainly in small towns, risk averse, and old fashioned. As easy banking with those such as BMO, TD, RBC, etc. started to emerge, ATB’s success was becoming uncertain. They then hired a new CEO to re-solidify their profile in the city. They ramped up their community investment portfolio, created a more modern brand image, sponsored LGBTQ+ Pride events, and now they’re basically the go-to bank for millennials in Alberta.
What was your first experience with “charity” – either giving or receiving?
I think it was watching a re-run of George Harrison’s benefit concert on TV. That was the first time a celebrity did something to raise awareness on a global issue.
What has been the biggest challenge in your career?
Restlessness. It’s taken me many years to appreciate that things don’t change overnight when you want them too. There is a long hill to climb to marshall evidence, rally support, build allies, and especially to listen to and appreciate alternative points of view on issues. It’s easy to turn a small boat in radical new directions. It’s tougher to nudge a large ship, but when that ship moves, it’s a powerful.