February 24th, 2018

A robotic dragon, Japanese cartoons, the Blues and… Non-profits

February 24th, 2018

Canadians have largely tasked the non-profit sector with fostering a sense of community in our towns and cities.

For example, community associations are all structured as non-profits. Nearly 60,000 non-profits are registered in Ontario, with thousands housed in Ottawa alone. Yet, two of the most significant community events to recently take place in the city were not created by non-profits.

They were conducted by a French street theatre company from Nantes, and the other, a San Francisco gaming company specialized in augmented reality.

They, of course, were La Machine and Niantic’s Pokémon Go.

An estimated 750,000 citizens watched a robotic dragon “take back its wings” in downtown Ottawa from July 27th-30th, 2017. The event surpassed the numbers of those on Canada Day. Mayor Jim Watson said the event had:

[C]aptivated the imagination of hundreds of thousands of people of all ages… a fairy tale weekend that residents and visitors will never forget.

There have been over 750+ million downloads of Pokémon Go to date. It had more “first week” downloads than any other app in history. Before the game was even formally available in Canada, Pokémon Go brought hordes of citizens into Ottawa’s downtown core. One quote that was emblematic of many people’s experiences was by Ms. Melanie Clermont:

I’ve been walking home from work now instead of taking the bus, so I can catch Pokemon on the way. I never noticed that there’s a park here or a restaurant there… It’s made me explore parts of Ottawa I’ve never seen before.

These two experiences may represent an opportunity for the non-profit sector and its funders.

Over $10 billion is donated by Canadians to non-profits every year, in addition to the hundreds of billions granted by governments. It was estimated that Niantic needed $200,000 in start-up funding to make Pokémon Go a reality. La Machine pulled off the 4-day event with $3.2 million.

Yet, if any non-profit in Ottawa pitched to a funder that they were going to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars, or millions at that, to engage the community through a robotic dragon or Japanese cartoons, they would be laughed out of the room. It is worth noting that Ottawa 2017, a registered non-profit, footed the bill to bring La Machine to Ottawa – but purchasing something is one thing, creating it is another.

Among many other challenges, the non-profit sector and its funders are more focused (or distracted) on making-up “logic models” or “theories of change” than producing meaningful change. And who can blame them? The rigid funding culture and traditional thinking of how to “responsibly” fund non-profits leaves little to no room for creativity, innovation or fun ­­— critical facets to successful community development.

However, Ottawa is not without its charitable champions in community development.

While it may come as a surprise to many, the Ottawa Bluesfest is a registered non-profit and charitable organization. And they do a lot for community development – to name a few: reducing social isolation, providing volunteer opportunities for youth and even supporting local talent (e.g., Blues in the Schools).

Except BluesFest does not apply to funders to reduce social isolation, provide volunteer opportunities or support local talent (at least to my knowledge). They accomplish these outcomes, anyways, by taking an unorthodox route; creating a platform that brings people together to enjoy music. This is just one example of how funders could think differently about accomplishing the goals of community development.

In order for community development to continue to thrive and be cultivated, a newfound agreement on risk tolerance and opportunity cost between the non-profit sector and its funders needs to take place.

The non-profit sector must come forward with more bold, ambitious and innovative initiatives that leverage alternative approaches to engagement through areas like: augmented reality, technology, live music and the countless other creative approaches happening all around us.

And funders need to be prepared to look at these proposals with fresh eyes and open minds. Non-profits shouldn’t necessarily be rejected by funders for taking unorthodox routes; in fact, they should be rewarded, because as we have seen with La Machine, Niantic and BluesFest, they work.