User Submitted Story


Arlene MacDonald


1. You have achieved a tremendous amount in your career thus far Arlene. Please share the achievements that you cherish the most.

I think the achievement that was probably most pivotal to me came when I was very young and serving as Jr High Student Council President, when we successfully convinced the school administration to reverse their decision to restrict girls from wearing gym shorts during the warm weather because it was distracting to the boys. I think that experience both cemented my convictions as a feminist and ultimately led me to a career in this sector.

Over more than 30 years, I’ve had the privilege to be involved in so many things. Some I’ve been the most excited about were developing an Industry Council in Nova Scotia for the charitable and nonprofit sector and having Nova Scotia be the first province to dedicate a day of recognition for the heroes that work in this sector. Being chosen Valedictorian when I graduated from the Coady Institute by an amazing group of women for which I have immense respect and being asked to serve as a member of the Advisory Council on the Charitable Sector have both been career highlights for me.

I’ve been very grateful for the opportunities to contribute in my home community and am proud to have been involved in creating our local youth health centres, a youth housing shelter, a community sexual assault response, and a public transportation system.

Ultimately the accomplishment I cherish the most is the relationships I’ve formed, the mentors, collaborators, and colleagues, who I’ve learned from, and who’ve inspired me and who continue to inspire me with their commitment to justice, equity, and change.

2. In hindsight looking back on your career milestones are there any things you would do differently?

Likely there are things I would do differently but being able to identify what those things are and knowing how I could have done better is wisdom that I’ve gained only from the mistakes I’ve made and the times that I failed. What I’ve tried to do over my career is to not regret but to reflect, to seek insight and guidance, to learn, and to apply those teachings so that I can do differently next time. I think if I could say anything to the young woman I was when I started, it would be to give myself permission to spectacularly fail.

3. You have a unique perspective encompassing National and Provincial jurisdictions. What are the key challenges and opportunities for the Nonprofit sector in Canada?

I think one of the key challenges to the sector is the multi-jurisdictional structure of the relationships and systems in which the sector operates. Many of the issues facing the sector including information sharing, accessible and adequate data, labor issues, funding, reporting burdens, regulatory barriers, are complicated by the fact that many organizations are reporting to multiple levels of government and across multiple departments of government, and there is little consistency across, or even sometimes within, jurisdictions in the relationship they have with the sector. While this has been a long-standing challenge, I think there is now a recognition that there is a need across all jurisdictions for more appropriate and effective partnerships with the sector. I’d suggest recent investments at a federal level into the sector’s capacity and the appointment of a Parliamentary Secretary for Community Development and Non-Profits in BC are signals of growing opportunities for the sector to be part of the solution.

4. What can we do to enhance recognition of the Sector’s contribution to the economy and social transformation of communities?

Better data. I really think better data would help us understand the scope and magnitude of the sector’s work and would enable the sector to more effectively tell the story of the impact it has on every jurisdiction’s economy and on the sustainability and well-being of every community.

5. There is much talk about the importance of Women assuming leadership positions in hthe Sector given that they comprise close to 80% of the workforce. What are some of the systemic issues that are hindering progress? Are you more confident now that we will make progress in the next decade?

I think if I had been asked this question pre-COVID my answer would have been different, perhaps more naively hopeful. What COVID demonstrated for me was the immense burden women are still facing. Seeing so many women exit the workplace to care for children or for ageing family members that could not access programs, seeing rates of violence against women increase, made me realize the extent of what still rests on women’s shoulders and made me appreciate even more the programs and institutions that women in this sector have built to support each other every day. The reality of the persistent wage gap meant that in many families, women stepped away from the workforce so that their higher waged male partners could continue to work. In a sector with a predominantly female workforce and with wages below other sectors, nonprofits and charities across the world faced and continue to face human resource crises. I’ve long been convinced that it is the sector’s female leadership that is responsible for its resiliency and its ability to succeed with minimal resources (despite the fact that even in this mostly female sector, male leaders are compensated at higher rates) but that is also the sector’s gender that has contributed to the systemic exclusion the sector has lived as an industry. I think for the sector to thrive, the women who work within it need to thrive. I think for that to happen, women and the work they do, the impact and contributions they make, need to be recognized in actions. Closing wage disparities with enforceable measures, investing in women’s leadership, education and training and in the supports required to make that possible like affordable and available child care, senior and caregiver programs. Investing in the sector’s infrastructure and capacity, its ability to provide sustainable leadership opportunities.

To be able to speak to whether we’ve actually made progress as women in this sector specifically is difficult, there has been little invested in the data structures that would provide us with that kind of information. I do have hope that the silver lining of the pandemic is that it will prove to be a catalyst for positive change for the sector and for the women who work within it. I’m also hopeful that a decade from now, we will have the data we need to answer the question of how much progress we’ve made.