Calls for Accountability

At HelpSeeker, we love digging into data. As we look to create stronger social support for people across what we now call Canada, data and evidence are key to creating the social change needed. After all, we can’t change what we can’t understand. 

In addition to the Systems Mapping work we are doing in partnership with the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation to map social services across Canada, we’ve also been diving into other datasets to better understand the “system” of Canada’s social safety net, particularly data from the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) that includes the revenues of registered charities. 

To most, this seems fairly unremarkable: tax information isn’t exactly the most attention-grabbing thing. At the same time, though, when combined with what we know about the social sector, it is incredibly illustrative of how well the social safety net is functioning. There are over 86,000 registered charities in Canada that receive $380B each year, working to support people in need by providing services to prevent them from falling further through the cracks. And this only accounts for what we can trace to registered charities: nonprofits, grassroots organizations, law enforcement, health, and education are not captured in this figure, yet play an important role in safety and wellbeing. 

As Canada sees growing criticism of our systems, such as movements to defund the police, the WE charity scandal, calls for the removal of the charitable status from churches that ran residential schools, and increasing frustration among Canadians with social services, the time is ripe for us to take a hard look at what we invest in and the social and financial value we get in return. This doesn’t mean retroactively justifying our past decisions, nor does it mean completely changing everything. Instead, it means taking a long, hard look at our systems and networks of support, and asking ourselves if those investments will create the future our communities want to see.

We ask a lot of the social sector, relying heavily on it to take care of our neighbours in times of need. Even with massive investments, we still see issues continue to persist — from homelessness and poverty, to violence and food insecurity. This isn’t to say the social sector isn’t doing its job: the social sector saves lives every day. However, because of Canada’s colonial history, we’ve inherited a charitable system not designed to solve issues at their root, but instead to deal with the consequences. As a result, there remain many shortcomings and opportunities for improvement. 

While the returns on most infrastructure investments are relatively easy to track, measuring social value (both qualitatively and financially) can be more challenging. Although service providers may be offering tremendous value to their clients, we need ways to capture this in the data, especially when we hear communities demanding accountability. It’s time we start holding our systems of service accountable to the communities they serve.  This means starting with a baseline understanding of what our current investments are, and the collective impact of those investments, including the impact (or lack of impact) for different populations and regions that experience social issues in unique ways. Only then, once we have this information, can we rethink how and why we deliver the services we do in a way that is based on evidence, intention, and social justice. 

When Mapping Meets Money

Unfortunately, without datasets that track the outcomes of social services at scale, it’s difficult for us to fully assess the impact these investments have. Some sectors attempt this (for example federally mandated Point-In-Time counts for homelessness), but generally speaking, there is a shortage of data on social outcomes. 

What we do know however, is where many of those investments come from, and how they show up at the end-user level.  Through financial datasets such as CRA reporting on charitable revenues,  along with the HelpSeeker Systems Map we can examine where money comes from, where it goes, and how it manifests in service delivery in different regions and for different populations. Our system map covers 280,000+ programs, locations, helplines, and benefits by geographic location, target populations, and service elements offered across the country. 

Recently, HelpSeeker conducted a Systems Mapping & Financial Analysis of Alberta’s Human Trafficking services using Social Impact Audit Methodologies, which systematically catalogue and analyze all funding in the social safety net in a region, to help decision-makers identify optimization opportunities that maximize return on investment.  The analysis also leveraged the HelpSeeker Systems Map by cross-referencing the investments that organizations received with the services they offer. 

This analysis looked at three areas:

  1. What we know about current and anticipated demand for services
  2. What we know about the service landscape
  3. What we know about investments in those services

In light of missing data on outcomes, combining these three items is an incredibly powerful tool to illustrate the current state of the system. While some of it seems like very basic information,  it is incredibly telling. Not only could we see what investments are being made and where they are being made, we could also see how those investments manifested in services at the end-user level across different target populations and regions. Further, much of this analysis did not exist previously, making this report one of the first of its kind. 

Here are some of the things we were able to uncover:

  • The size of the investments going to each organization providing trafficking-related services in comparison to the provincial social safety net.
  • Who the main funders of those organizations were.
  • How services were delivered (for example, counselling, information and referral, shelter, legal support).
  • Who those funded organizations served, by target population factors, such as gender, age, citizenship status, housing situation, ability, experiences in the justice system, and prerequisites for accessing services.
  • What other services were also offered by those funded organizations in addition to trafficking-related services.
  • Regional funding and funding per capita.

Although this analysis was done for the human trafficking sector, the broader potential of this type of analysis is enormous. Applied to other sectors such as homelessness, poverty, violence, safety, or mental health, we can uncover these insights and really understand the opportunities for improving the sector at the funding level.

With all this information at our fingertips, we now have the ability to follow the money through the system, right from where it starts to where it ends up. 

Analyzing financial data alongside system-mapping data sets the stage for considering critical questions that any socially conscious funder should ask themselves. Some of these questions include:

  • How current practices compare to researched best practices (does this service mix align with what research says?).
  • What the right service mix is (for example, whether to specialize or generalize services, provide one type of service or multiple, serve one target population or multiple, and  provide information services or direct interventions).
  • How to identify the optimal scale of investments in each of these areas based on anticipated demand and best costing practices. (How much should we invest in services for population X? How much should we invest in a certain type of service delivery? How much should we invest in a certain region?)

This type of analysis also helps funders understand the collective impact they have as a whole, rather than only on a case-by-case basis, creating space for conversations around funding integration, coordination, and systems change. 

Uncovering Opportunities

It is important to acknowledge that while complex, these types of analyses and social research do not create change themselves. But they do help create the conditions for transformation and increased transparency. 

Ultimately, the purpose of the social safety net is to take care of our communities, and all stakeholders, whether they are government funders, philanthropists, service users, or taxpayers, deserve to know that decisions about these services are made with thoughtfulness, intention, and community in mind. 

Therefore, we need not only an understanding of investments, we also need regional and population equity analyses, to understand how services are delivered, and transparency on the outcomes of our investments. Social Impact Audits and Systems Mapping are one way to help build this awareness and tell a story about the supports available to us. 

It is highly likely these types of analyses can uncover a lot of inefficiencies in the system. In fact, exposure of these shortcomings can generally be expected, and they are by no means the fault of any person or group. 

We do have a responsibility, however, to talk about these shortcomings, and respond in a way that ensures the social safety net we create for the future is built thoughtfully and intentionally, based on evidence and data. Reports like this should not be viewed as a bad publicity risk, but instead an opportunity for us to have the conversations we need to have to create the change necessary for more equitable systems of care. 

At HelpSeeker, we support this by sharing, and continuing to share, information that can support these conversations using data and technology. Interested in learning more about how HelpSeeker uses Systems Mapping & Social Impact Audits to support systems change?  Book a consultation with us here. 

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