On The Road, And Then?


I made a good move starting up my new blog Keenan Speaks. It’s a new professional goal to get out more and purposefully spread a positive message about including people with disabilities in the community in neighbourhoods, workplaces, and community venues, and it’s working well.

By working well, I don’t mean merely that I am getting invitations, but rather that the response is delivering results: employers that want to find out more about hiring a person with an intellectual disability, a volunteer board member of a fundraising body that thinks LiveWorkPlay should be a beneficiary, a passionate citizen that wants to volunteer…

It’s also a refreshing break the endless scarcity dialogue. Don’t get me wrong, it’s true that there are thousands of people on Developmental Services waiting lists who need and deserve support. But it’s also true that a lot of what goes on in the sector has little connection to helping people with intellectual and developmental disabilities enjoy an included life in their community. A lot of the resources expended only produce results that exist within the system: institutional forms of housing and institutional forms of human warehousing in agency facilities through day programs and sheltered workshops.

Getting out and talking to “regular people” reminds me that although the system has serious problems and needs to be reformed, there is nothing stopping an agency like LiveWorkPlay from connecting with coalitions of the willing within the system, as well as the big world beyond Developmental Services to make a difference in people’s lives.

I am grateful to Community Living Atikokan and Community Living Thunder Bay who invited Julie and I to visit their organizations in March. This exposed us to new ways that we could make a difference. It doesn’t matter that LiveWorkPlay has certain distinct differences from other organizations. What matters is what we have in common. I’ve come to understand there is lot that other people can take from our experience and that we can in turn learn from them about how to work together to make the world a better place for marginalized citizens.

And so it is that Julie and I are off to two conferences in the relatively distant lands of Wenatchee, Washington (near Seattle) for the Community Summit and Long Beach, California for the APSE National Conference. We are honoured and humbled to be sharing the spotlight with legends like Al Condeluci, Bruce Anderson, Norman Kunc and Emma Vander Klift, and more.

phil-blog

This is also a bit frightening but Julie and I have figured out that something we bring to the discussion is our ongoing very close daily connection with people with intellectual disabilities, their families, and community partners. Nothing we have to say is theoretical: it’s what goes on every day with our staff team colleagues. There’s only 10 of them, so we are close to the action, to understate the situation.

We know that what was celebrated at Engines of Success last Thursday is not typical of what Developmental Services agencies are supporting, and so we have something important to share, even if we’ve not taken a breath to publish books about it or design a training curriculum (not yet, anyway!).

We do hope to inspire people, but also make sure that they understand the difficulty of this work. The real world is a messy place. There are no guarantees and certainties, there is only the relentless drive to support people on their own life journey.

We are excited by also tired, and so it is with great excitement that there is a gap in time between these two conferences, and we are going to take full advantage of this opportunity to spend some time along the sea coast of Washington, Oregon, and California. We desperately need to unplug a little.

We’ll be back for the week of July 7 and I’ll be right back at it with a planning meeting on Monday for the Opportunities and Possibilities: Fundraising and People with Disabilities conference.

I look forward to sharing all of the experiences of this road trip when I return. I expect it will be an odd mix of human services epiphanies to observations about sea otter behaviours! And perhaps there will even be some crossover between the two.

Who knows what’s next? It will be exciting to find out!

Posted in advocacy | Leave a comment

Investing In People’s Lives: A Beautiful Mess


As I sat listening to this year’s United Way Ottawa Community Investment announcement, I was prepared for a few smiles, camaraderie with familiar faces, and the opportunity to contribute some applause for deserving people. I’ve been in the charitable sector for about 20 years now as an employee, volunteer, board member, spokesperson, and many other roles, so I’ve seen a lot and as a result, I’m not easily moved. But I have to say the story of Guy Clairoux touched me pretty deeply.

guy

Please watch the video that tells his story, but here’s why it really hits home for me.

Guy had a rough time at school and was targeted because he wore glasses. So he took off his glasses and did not wear them in class. The problem with that solution is he could not see very well, and the school labeled him as having a disability, and he was segregated into the Special Education program. Desperate for social connection, he found some willing comrade outcasts who introduced him to smoking, drugs, and crime.

This part of the story touched me for a variety of reasons, one of them being that although Guy was misdiagnosed before being sent to Special Education, it doesn’t really matter – segregating people does not help them. It punishes them.

We need our schools to be inclusive places where students learn to be together regardless of their differences. When our schools instead reinforce difference, we end up with adults who carry on what was taught to them – that people with disabilities belong in the basement, somewhere down the hall, somewhere around the corner, somewhere out of sight. There is no opportunity to learn about reciprocity and value.

matt

It is not well understood that the 75% unemployment rate for people with intellectual disabilities has little to do with “skills” or the need for an updated resume. The problem is that potential employers and co-workers have been taught their entire lives that “those people” belong in separate places. At LiveWorkPlay we take pride in working with United Way Ottawa and other partners to demonstrate that including people with disabilities changes workplaces for the better.

The other part of the story that touched me was seeing Guy right in front of me as a cherished hero of his local community. He turned his life around (something United Way Ottawa donors support) and is credited with helping to dramatically improve the lives of the residents of Regina Towers (part of Ottawa Community Housing).

As it turns out, I know the building well. I went to Regina Street Public School and passed the building every day. I was also aware that for a period of time the Regina Towers community felt unsafe due to the unwelcoming presence of some residents that were engaging in criminal and other negative behaviour. It became one of those buildings where people would cringe when the name was mentioned.

What is remarkable (as you listen to the tenants speaking in the video) there are now people hoping to spend their entire lives at Regina Towers. They don’t want to go anywhere else. They are home. They feel safe.

But it is the same building. But different.

Because people like Guy changed it.

Because people believed in him and he was able to turn his life around, and was able to apply his life lessons to helping others.

Too many times, particularly when the topic is addictions, I hear people talking about the waste of money and energy that goes to helping addicts. Sometimes the comments go further, as in, perhaps it is best to let addicts kill themselves with their own habit.

That’s a pretty ugly sentiment, but I’ve learned that this is mainly borne out of fear and ignorance, and perhaps a sense of hopelessness – that “those people can’t be helped.”

I looked Guy in the eyes today. There is life and light. There is a powerful energy that contrasts in a compelling manner from the hollow shell that was Guy as an addict. Guy’s life could have ended many times, and that would have been a tragedy, as is all loss of life…but Guy didn’t merely survive. Because he got the help he needed, he is a beloved leader in his community.

In conclusion, if you are in position to advocate for inclusion, speak up. Be a part of the solution. If you sometimes feel frustrated by people like “Guy the addict” try to remember that the person could be “Guy the community hero” in waiting.

Posted in advocacy, LiveWorkPlay | 1 Comment

Deconstructing Sheltered Workshops: Confusion Abounds


I recently had the opportunity to publicly discuss the Garrie v Janus ruling of the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario which decided in favour of Terrie-Lynn Garrie; that her pay of $1.25 an hour was discriminatory and that she is to be awarded damages.


Beyond this specific situation, the HRTO has also pressed for more information about sheltered workshops across Ontario. US statistics indicate that almost three times as many resources are invested in segregated activities than in helping people with intellectual disabilities live as included citizens (homes, workplaces, social life). It is estimated that the situation is also 3:1 in Ontario but there is no available data to determine this. It’s something I am hoping the Legislature of Ontario Select Committee on Developmental Services can identify as an issue and find some answers.

We really don’t know much about where people with intellectual disabilities live, work, and play in our communities, and we certainly don’t know enough about the disconnect between our investment in the Developmental Services system and the results it produces. The system is supposed to be delivering inclusive outcomes, but given that the majority of its activities seem to be focused on infrastructure supporting group homes, sheltered workshops, and day programs, we need to ask some hard questions, get some solid answers, and start developing some firm plans to point the DS ship in the right direction.

In some ways it is simple – invest in what includes people, not what excludes them – and yet, it is very complicated. Some evidence of this is found in the recent column by Christie Blatchford “Case of seeming cruelty more complicated than it looks.”

Ms. Blatchford is correct that the situation is very complicated, and although she made a game effort to unbundle the facts, there is still some confusion to this story. This is not a criticism of her efforts, it’s just that when it comes to something as convoluted as sheltered workshops, there’s nothing simple about it.

It’s first important to clarify that there is no law that has closed sheltered workshops. There are in fact thousands of people, mainly those with intellectual disabilities, in work-like settings all over the province, where they are receiving “wages” similar to the $1.25 in the Garrie-Janus case. These workshops are in a very slow decline, but the slow pace of this social change (which has been going on for about 40 years) is clearly about to speed up.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and other moral and legal frameworks have brought new attention to these practices, and we are now at a critical juncture. We continue to invest heavily in segregated infrastructure (mostly established in the 1970s) when we need be adopting modern practices that result in inclusive outcomes. This requires entirely different types of supports, which although proven very effective, are grossly underfunded.

I’m not a lawyer or a labour law specialist, but as I understand it, one of the circumstances in this situation that made for a relatively clear human rights violation was the fact of non-disabled individuals working alongside individuals with disabilities, all of whom were performing similar tasks, but at decidedly different pay. That’s an ugly optic, even if it is complicated.

Whether someone’s mother approved of this or not, or whether the company told certain employees they could take coffee breaks as often as they wanted, or whether the low income amounts were reported to Ontario Disability Support Program, that did not sway the tribunal, and that is in my opinion a very good thing. When citizens of any type are being exploited, it’s not uncommon that caring or well-meaning people could be part of the processes, structures, or environments where discrimination is taking place.

But it would be a mistake to get trapped in the financial details or to focus solely on equity. The bigger picture here is a slow but sure social change where people with intellectual disabilities are emerging from the shadows and margins of their own communities.

It is no surprise that Ms. Garrie has not found life easy after leaving the workshop. I do not know her life history, so I’ll not speak to that, but refer instead to the typical profile of a person her age who has her particular disability labels: she would have received a segregated education (Special Education classrooms or a school that was entirely segregated) followed by adult services (such as day programs or sheltered workshops) where she would be similarly isolated from authentic community experience (such as a real workplace), and in a group living situation (such as a group home) with a staff-centric environment, sharing space with people that she never chose to live with.

For a person in their 40s with such a history, they would need a mix of paid and unpaid support to establish themselves in the community as a neighbour, an employee, and a valued citizen.

It is clear to me that we do need to bring sub-minimum wage practices to an end. This issue has exploded in the United States. President Obama has weighed in. There is a massive class action lawsuit in Oregon. This change in Ontario will happen, likely through a mix of voluntary transitions and legislative transitions.

But the real issue is planning for the transition. The closing part is relatively easy. It’s what happens next (or more appropriately, leading up to closure) that takes investment of thought and resources. There are many agencies that have been delivering inclusive outcomes for people with intellectual disabilities for 20 years or more, but these are by far in the minority, for the simple reason that their activities have not been significantly supported.

They have been considered on the fringe, likely labeled as “innovative” and thus isolated from mainstream funding sources. They operate without much infrastructure. Most of their work is about building relationships. This is harder to understand than building activity centres or group homes, but it’s what needs to be done if we believe in an inclusive society and also if we believe our tax dollars should deliver results we can be proud of.

The sheltered workshops could close tomorrow, and reopen the next day as “day programs” with no pay at all (instead of $1.25 an hour) and I believe most of the same people would come in and take their place around the tables just as they have always done before. So money has been the catalyst for drawing attention to this issue, but it’s not really THE issue.

This is really about how our society (and taxpayers) have invested and continue to invest billions of dollars in a system that serves mainly to segregate people with intellectual disabilities from their communities. Some 40 years ago, this was an advancement, as these centres were a great improvement compared to the large institutions located on the outskirts of town.

But now the next phase of this social change is long overdue. It’s not about providing people with a place where they can “sort of work” and sit on a sofa to pass the time. It’s about possibilities. It’s about respect and dignity. It’s about valuing people with intellectual disabilities as citizens who are not broken and who deserve to be welcomed everywhere in our communities. And it’s about how all citizens will benefit from their contributions.

I highly recommend “Community participation for adults with an intellectual disability: review of the literature prepared for the National Advisory Committee on Health and
Disability to inform its project on services for adults with an intellectual disability” for the development of a broader understanding about segregation versus inclusion.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

LinkedIn Fun!


Whether you have joined LinkedIn or not, you might find my blog title a bit odd. Isn’t LinkedIn sort of like the social media network designed for not having fun? Well, although it doesn’t boast any games where you can build a virtual farm like you can on Facebook, doesn’t feature 200,000 videos of cute kittens playing in boxes like on YouTube, and doesn’t tend to trend #Beyonce like Twitter, it is enjoying steady growth in membership, and looking at the business case it is arguably the strongest model out there.

LinkedIn EndorsementsFor my role as co-leader of LiveWorkPlay as well as volunteer efforts with United Way Ottawa and others, LinkedIn is also becoming a favored place for me to connect with others in my field (worldwide) and for developing local partnerships. Other members of the LiveWorkPlay staff team and especially our Manager of Employment Supports are finding that LinkedIn is an increasingly useful tool for reaching out to individuals and organizations to make the business case for the employment of people with intellectual disabilities.

But it’s not all work and no play.

It is no doubt an unintended consequence, but LinkedIn endorsements have become a source of both interest and amusement for many. While it is good advice to not let any recommendation go to your head – especially one that is based on nothing but a click – it’s still useful to me to see what type of endorsements I am receiving (I do not ask for them, these have all been given through the free will of others).

As you can see from the graphic below, I have now received more than 1000 endorsements (which is very cool, I remain fascinated with odometer-style milestones) and the somewhat generic “nonprofit” and “non-profits” are at the top of the list which certainly makes sense, as do the various categories related to communications.

On the funny side, how did I get four endorsements for laughter yoga? I tried this once and believe me, I don’t deserve an endorsement. Opinions are split on the practice. I don’t think there could be anything worse than having laughter yoga gurus angry with me, so here’s an article if you want to learn more about it. If you’ve spent any time in the LiveWorkPlay work environment, you’d know we aren’t much in need of a laughter coach. Usually there’s a need for an announcement that a guest is coming so we need to stop laughing (we do a lot of very serious work and we long ago learned to balance the tears with laughter).

I also received 2 endorsements each for Humor and Jokes, and 5 endorsements for Irreverence. I admit, I did make a direct ask for those. It’s the one exception (and now the second exception, see below) to my “don’t ask” rule.

In the continuing spirit of making LinkedIn more fun, I would like to take this opportunity to make a new request. Earlier today, after responding to a call for feedback on a document sent to me by an umbrella agency in my sector (and after I pointed out that my concerns were being whitewashed) I was told that “You have much to contribute, even if it comes across as impertinent at times.”

Under the circumstances, I decided to take this as a compliment, so if you are on LinkedIn, or if you would like to join up, find me, and see what it’s all about, I invite you to please endorse me for Impertinence In The Face Of Injustice.

LinkedIn Endorsements

Posted in linkedin, social media | Tagged , | Leave a comment

The Top Five LiveWorkPlay Stories of 2013



5-rowWe asked ourselves “What were the TOP FIVE LiveWorkPlay stories of 2013?” To answer that question we used the insight statistics from our Facebook page. This is far from perfect (not every LiveWorkPlay story finds its best expression on Facebook) but we can say with confidence, the top five definitely attracted massive attention! There were a few stories we did not include. The passing of former LiveWorkPlay member Rob More was by far the most read story on our Facebook page and on LiveWorkPlay.ca and we did not include it here. That story stands alone. We also did not include stories about staff members. There were some news features about our co-leaders Julie Kingstone and Keenan Wellar (in the University of Ottawa Tabaret Magazine  and Globe and Mail Careers Section in particular) that were also heavily read, and also the announcement of the birth of baby Hannah (staff member Anthony Stratton) that had the “likes” going through the roof. This one and only photo of the staff team was also a big hit. Some stories covered by (but not about) LiveWorkPlay that attracted thousands of views included sharing the news of an award given to our good friend and social capital champion Al Condeluci in Pittsburgh, and the recent class action lawsuit settlement and apology in the legislature to victims and survivors of the Huronia, Rideau Regional, and Southwestern institutions.

Some stories from December continue to attract readership, and would likely have made our list if given more time. These include coverage of the amazing Festive Family Feast (with many sub-stories including Ontario Trillium Foundation Grant, Rob More Good Life Award, and Matt Suttie/Imperial Coffee video) and the speech given by Cooper Gage at a United Way Ottawa cabinet meeting. Cooper and his volunteer match (and LiveWorkPlay board member) Alexis Dusonchet also ranked in the top ten with readers  after their story appeared in Ottawa Metro and the story of Phil and Catherine’s match also had readers buzzing in a big way.

Our top five featured stories in no particular order are as follows:

A story during National Volunteer Week that focused on how LiveWorkPlay facilitates the development of relationships. The amazing photo with Emily and Ellyce certainly didn’t hurt. Discussing the many different types of volunteers at LiveWorkPlay and how they contribute to the lives of individuals and the community attracted a lot of interest, and was an important part of presentations to the YAI Conference and Person-Centred Practices conference.

Some reflections on the trip to Washington, D.C.  no doubt attracted visitors who wanted to view the videos and photos, but it was more the story of how members from LiveWorkPlay interacted with other travelers on this Ottawa Valley Tours trip that had people sharing the story with others. Our readers were also touched by a retelling of the encounter with a stranger who was moved by the obvious enjoyment of everyone in the group.

The Recipe for Success Charity Auction is hardly news, since it happens every year, but we had a big spike in interest about it in 2013, probably because there were a lot of newcomers who were tweeting it and posting about it on Facebook. There was also the rumour that someone had fallen through the stage and crashed into MC Sandy Sharkey. To find out if this is true or false you’d need to go to the 3:55 mark of this video.

The last two stories both took place on the evening of June 6! At the annual United Way Ottawa gala, LiveWorkPlay received a Community Builder of the Year award for Belonging to Community. It was a big moment with an amazing speech by Vaughn McKinney from The Parliament Cleaning Group who stood alongside employee Jeremy Robin and told the story of how LiveWorkPlay brought them together. Then Julie and Keenan made a few brief comments and accepted the award on behalf of the LiveWorkPlay community, who were watching the ceremony via Skype while taking part in Engines of Success!

Last but not least, the Engines of Success annual recognition banquet. This event received massive attention, not only while it was being hosted, but in the days and weeks to follow. Perhaps the many fans of The WORKS Gourmet Burger Bistro had a lot to do with all of the extra interest, as they accepted the 2013 Community Ambassador award for their efforts in promoting the employment of people with intellectual disabilities.

In conclusion, these five examples were statistically among the most popular moments, events, and stories of 2013, but they are just that: examples. What an analysis of our networks also shows is that we have a strong community of supports who are always interested in what individuals and organizations are doing to make Ottawa and the rest of the world a more inclusive place for all!

Posted in charity, disability, employment, intellectual disabilities, LiveWorkPlay | Leave a comment

From The Globe and Mail: “My Career”


GLOBE-HEADER

What is your name and title?

My name is Keenan Wellar and I am co-leader and director of communications with LiveWorkPlay, a charitable organization in Ottawa that helps the community welcome people with intellectual disabilities to live, work, and play as valued citizens. My title is co-leader because my wife, Julie Kingstone, whom I married in 2001, and I co-founded the organization in 1995 and it became our “co-career” in 1997.

What exactly do you do?

My days are extremely varied. In addition to developing communications and marketing strategies and materials (everything from print to video), I also review communications developed by others. It could be anything from a notice our volunteer co-ordinator is sending to a community newspaper to a presentation our employment supports team is working on for a conference.

In addition to media relations and appearances for LiveWorkPlay, I manage our website and social media channels, which are surprisingly extensive given the small size of our organization. Our sector is highly competitive in terms of both ideas and resources, and there are always threats and opportunities to consider. I like the challenge of responding to them.

What’s your background and education?

I have an honours BA in history and a bachelor of education from the University of Ottawa. I earned my MA in applied linguistics at Carleton University in Ottawa, where I also received a non-profit marketing certificate. Most important, I learned that I enjoy communication tasks and problem-solving.

How did you get to your position?

I went from working as a lunch room monitor to a teaching assistant in special education, and from there went on to teachers’ college. While I decided I wasn’t interested in working in a school, through my connections in education, I ended up with a full-time position in a fast-growing IT company where I spearheaded a federal government project related to disabilities and education.

I met Julie Kingstone through a mutual friend and, as a sideline to our full-time careers (she was working in palliative care), we spent a lot of time with people with disabilities and their family members, and got involved in advocacy. They liked what we were doing and urged us to do more. We got a grant from the Ontario Trillium Foundation and suddenly we found ourselves pursuing a new career path, which was really more of a calling than a job.

The early years were tough. We worked without salaries at times. From 2008-2010, we undertook a massive restructuring. It was not something we were forced to do; we did it because it was the right thing to do, and now our members are having better outcomes – and at less cost to donors and taxpayers.

What’s the best part of your job?

We have reason to celebrate every day. Someone gets their first job or apartment, or makes their first adult friend. People with intellectual disabilities are highly marginalized (75 per cent unemployment), so when we see them beat the odds, and have the privilege of helping, it just feels great. Specific to my own communications role, I get frequent messages from people who tell me that they were inspired by our website, or a video, or one or our presentations, and that they made changes as a result. Or, we might recruit a new employment partner or a new volunteer as a result of our earned reputation. That’s always a thrill for me.

What’s the worst part of your job?

Bad things can happen to good people for no reason at all. We used to support a young man named Rob More who died in the Ottawa bus/train crash tragedy. Communicating with the media about that tragedy challenged me in new ways.

What are your strengths in this role?

This job is not 9 to 5, and neither am I, so it works out well. When inspiration strikes, I like to run with it. There are certain times of year when everyone in the charitable sector needs to be able to run on fumes and deal with being pulled in many different directions. It’s not that I don’t ever get upset, but I’m usually pretty calm even in the face of really challenging situations.

What are your weaknesses?

I can be very blunt with my opinions about the choices other agencies or sector leaders are making. This is not always appreciated. Although I think I’ve dramatically improved on my diplomacy, I still earn a pretty high score on the assertiveness scale. It can be hard for me to let go of what I believe is right.

What has been your best career move?

It wasn’t easy to go through teachers’ college, which offers a clear career path, and just drop it to do something completely different. There wasn’t much of a business case for starting LiveWorkPlay; Julie and I just believed it needed to be done. It’s great when you can follow your heart.

What has been your worst career move?

It all brought me to here, which is great. I did work my way through university as an overnight security guard, and I think I’m only just now getting my internal clock back to normal. Julie and I tried out for The Amazing Race Canada, hoping we’d have a national platform to advance the LiveWorkPlay cause. We didn’t get on the show but we came close to getting hypothermia making the audition tape.

What’s your next big job goal?

I want to continue to focus outward – to have an impact on changing attitudes about people with intellectual disabilities as fully valued citizens who have the opportunity and freedom to live, work and play in the community like everybody else. This means supporting continued growth of internal leadership so that I can transition more of my time to external communications and relationships.

What’s your advice to others who might want to follow in your footsteps?

Taking an entrepreneurial spirit and channeling it into the non-profit sector can be an exciting option for those who would like their work to generate results that have a positive impact on people and communities.

Do you know an executive or leader who has an interesting career story for My Career or My Career Abroad? E-mail mycareer@globeandmail.com

Posted in careers, LiveWorkPlay | Leave a comment

This Thanksgiving: Give Thanks The United Way


turkeyMany readers of this blog are aware that I volunteer as a Focus Area Champion for United Way Ottawa. I was approached two years ago when the Focus Area Champion concept was first being assembled, and I was honored with the idea of representing the Employment of People with Disabilities priority within the Belonging To Community focus area.

I find Ottawa is one of the smallest big cities in the world, and people have long memories. Some even remember more than ten years ago when I was publicly critical of the United Way Ottawa because I felt that it was a small “closed club” of beneficiary organizations when donors could be better served by working with more agencies and with a stronger focus on solving problems than on funding agency budgets. I was far from the only person with this view – there were lots of voices inside and outside of the organization that were in agreement with the need for a change.

Well, for an agency as large as the United Way Ottawa, they’ve changed all of this at a rather amazing pace. Their ability to explain what they do, why they do it, and at what cost, is among the best of any United Way organization in North America, as was recently stated by the President of United Way Canada at Ottawa’s 2013 Annual General Meeting. Here it is:

Belonging To Community

  • Connecting people with disabilities who want to work with meaningful employment opportunities;
  • Ensuring that more seniors have the supports they need to age in their own homes;
  • Decreasing the unemployment and underemployment of immigrants and new Canadians;
  • Increasing the number of people working together to improve their own neighbourhoods.

Growing Up Great

  • Help more children enter school ready to learn, and;
  • Help more at-risk children and youth succeed

Turning Lives Around

  • Helping get homeless people off the streets through housing first initiatives;
  • Helping people with mental health and addictions issues get access to the support they need; and
  • Providing support and treatment for people and families in crisis

From time to time I still hear rumblings that “I don’t give my money to United Way because I don’t know where it is going.” Well, I have been in the charitable sector for more than 20 years, and I can tell you that it would be very difficult to find any organization that has invested more effort in communication and transparency. I realize it takes time for people to appreciate new realities no matter how well they are communicated. I’m trying to do my part to help donors, the media, and public at large understand how much things have changed and how the United Way Ottawa is now working with more than 100 community partners to solve community problems with more attention to efficiency and outcomes than ever before.

The latest interesting communications challenge is that United Way Ottawa has taken yet another big step towards improving transparency, but initially it was misunderstood as something more dramatic, rather than the simple (and positive) clarification that it is.

As you probably know, when you donate to the United Way campaign, you can give to the United Way, or to any other registered Canadian charity, or a combination of both.  So, when trying to establish a campaign goal, in the past United Way Ottawa has had to estimate how much of the total dollars raised would be redirected to other charities, and how much the United Way would have for its own priorities (and agreements it has with 100+ partner agencies to make it happen). The problem with this is that when people would see “$31 Million Raised!” they would assume that all of this money went to United Way Ottawa, when in fact, a significant portion of it was passed along to other charities.

Last year about $17 million went to United Way Ottawa and $14 million to other charities. The $17 million was actually less than needed to carry out the priority area projects and plans for the year. This was confusing to the public, because they had in their heads that a much higher figure had been raised.

So, for 2013-2014 the United Way Ottawa took the bold step of resolving this problem. They did what is obviously the right thing to do for donors and the community, and announced that the goal for United Way Ottawa priorities is $21 million. And that they would continue (as always) to accept donations for other charities and pass those funds along to them. These funds will of course be tracked, but reported separately, so as to prevent any further confusion and to improve accountability – the funds passed along to other charities can’t be evaluated by United Way Ottawa, and donors need to understand that in making that choice, the United Way role is simply to accurately transfer the funds.

I am not sure how this change has become a negative for some, all I can figure out is that they didn’t understand what it really means, and once they do, they will also come to the inescapable conclusion that this makes a great deal more sense than the past practice (common to most United Way agencies) of reporting a lump sum that clouds the ability of donors to understand what happens to their dollars.

So, this Thanksgiving weekend, consider showing your gratitude for living in a wonderful city like Ottawa by making a donation to help change lives in our community. If you really want to target your donation, as a Focus Area Champion I am fully authorized to suggest that you donate specifically to helping people with disabilities find and keep paid employment. Just enter all or part of your donation where indicated. There is a lot of unmet need in all of the priority areas and you should feel comfortable targeting the priorities that resonate most strongly for you.

Posted in charity, communications, disability, employment | Leave a comment