A recently introduced certificate program, delivered by Luther College and the University of Regina’s Centre for Continuing Education, is building important leadership capacity in Saskatchewan’s volunteer and non-profit sectors.

Maria Fernanda Martinez CNSLI’18 sits in her office at the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Regina where she works as the donor services coordinator for the Archbishop's Appeal.

“It’s an excellent position for me because one of my favourite areas in the non-profit sector is fundraising,” she says of her job, which includes a fundraising campaign whose proceeds support ministries, programs and Catholic charities in Southern Saskatchewan. “I’m also really happy because I never thought I’d secure a satisfying job so soon.”

Martinez moved to Canada at the end of 2017 in search of professional advancement. Her non-profit work experience in her native Colombia was extensive, including, at one point, managing corporate contributions for a private company. Just before leaving, she was the funding lead in a non-profit organization. She had the experience but lacked academic credentials.

“I was researching different programs that matched my non-profit interest,” she says, adding that she was drawn to shorter courses and ones that complement her existing experience in the non-profit sector. That’s how she happened upon Luther College and the Centre for Continuing Education’s Certificate in Nonprofit Sector Leadership and Innovation (NSLI).

“It fulfilled all my criteria,” she says. “It was short so I could do it in one year and I could work part-time or full-time while I completed it. So I applied and was accepted.”

Under the directorship of Yvonne Harrison, the Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Studies Network (NVSSN), located at Luther College at the University of Regina, oversees delivery of the five-course NSLI Certificate. It’s the first formal program of study on the non-profit and voluntary sector in Saskatchewan.

Harrison draws from her extensive non-profit and voluntary sector background, rich in scholarship and innovative research. As a faculty member at the Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy at the State University of New York at Albany (University of Albany, SUNY), she was awarded the President’s Award for Exemplary Public Engagement and received grants to increase access to non-profit leadership education and research by proposing a series of massive open online courses on improving leadership and governance in non-profit organizations. Those courses currently enrol about 19,000 people in 162 countries.

Maria Fernanda Martinez
Although Maria Fernanda Martinez had a lot of non-profit experience in her native Columbia, the NSLI Certificate program fit nicely with her availability and those skills she wished to acquire. (Photo by Trevor Hopkin)

“And they are working on critical social justice and economic issues, often in countries without functioning governments,” she says, explaining that students are encouraged to use the course and open source materials she and co-instructor, Professor Vic Murray of the University of Victoria, developed to teach, conduct research and provide a service to help boards reach higher levels of performance. This includes Board Checkup, a free online tool students and boards use to conduct confidential assessments of board performance, and Guidelines for Improving the Effectiveness of Boards of Directors of Nonprofit Organizations, the SUNY Open Textbook, which has been downloaded over 11,200 times.

She says that even in more stable economies where there have been a growing number of governance failures, there’s a movement for boards within the non-profit and voluntary sector to beef up governance processes to be more efficient, effective and accountable.

“So, universities are giving back to the communities, not only by sharing the knowledge and resources they have, but also by shaping education and research to generate real, usable, practical knowledge to help them respond to real world problems,” Harrison says.

To that end, the NSLI certificate program follows a largely applied experiential learning model, intentionally connecting students to organizations in the community through academic courses in one way or another. This is what, in part, appealed to alumna Hannah Sackville BA’18, CNSLI’18.

Hannah Sackville (left) was one of the first students to complete the NSLA certificate. She’s seen here with administrative assistant Vivya Natana. (Photo by Trevor Hopkin)

“While you’re learning about cost analysis and mission drift as issues within an organization, for example, you’re also consulting with a local non-profit that’s struggling with those issues,” says Sackville, who currently works for the Alzheimer Society of Saskatchewan. “You’re doing research that can inform their future decisions, depending on how well you’ve done your job, of course,” she adds.

Sackville was among the first cohort to graduate from the program and currently sits on the NVSSN Advisory Committee. During the program, she remembers working in various capacities with local non-profits, including the Regina Bridge Club, the Indian Head Grand Theatre, the Joshua Mutafya Foundation and the Mennonite Central Committee.

“We were always learning from each other and working together to innovate,” she says of projects that she and her classmates undertook. Sackville says these varied from boosting revenue development streams, to strategies for recruiting volunteers, to deciding — in the case of one particular charity — what to do with an unused space.

The experiential learning aspect of the curriculum is a highlight of the program that resonated with Martinez.

“There’s no playing around,” says Martinez, who worked as a research assistant with NVSSN before graduating in autumn 2018. She was especially impressed by all the projects that had students design proposals to address specific challenges faced by local non-profit organizations. “You get to help real non-profit organizations do better by offering valuable proposals that can be developed further.”

Canada has the second largest non-profit sector in the world with an estimated 170,000 registered charities and non-profit organizations. According to Imagine Canada, an umbrella organization that represents the charitable sector, more than two million people are employed by non-profits. These institutions contribute $176 billion in income and account for more than eight per cent of Canada’s GDP.

For Sackville, being included on the NVSSN Advisory Committee — first as a student and now as an alumna — has served as a professional development opportunity.

“I get to work with a lot of people who are executive directors of organizations or who are practitioners in the community and who are supportive and conscious that, while I may not have their level of experience as a practitioner, my input on matters to do with NVSSN is valuable,” she says.

According to Sackville, recurring statistics have revealed an age gap on important committees and boards, with younger people not adequately represented. People her age, she supposes, may not even consider themselves suitable for those leadership opportunities, but formal training like the NSLI certificate can equip them with the necessary skills and confidence to seek out those opportunities.

Harrison agrees. She says that formal academic programs on the non-profit and voluntary sectors not only foster the development of knowledge and leadership capability, they generate knowledge and resources that non-profit and voluntary organizations can use to further develop and grow.

(Left to right) Hannah Sackville, Yvonne Harrison, and Vivya Natana are just three of the individuals who see a bright future for the NSLI certificate program. Canada has the second largest non-profit sector in the world with an estimated 170,000 registered charities and non-profit organizations. (Photo by Trevor Hopkin)

But Harrison says those statistics are based on data collected from incorporated charitable and non-profit organizations of a certain size, which Canada Revenue Agency tracks. These data don’t include the unincorporated voluntary associations or the contributions from volunteerism. “So, the sector’s actually much larger than we know,” she explains, “and what those social contributions add up to economically? It’s a whole lot.”

This is why Harrison sees it fitting that the province with the highest rate of volunteerism in the country (58 per cent) has an academic program like NVSSN to play a supporting role in enhancing contributions and building sector capacity in Saskatchewan.

One way NVSSN does this is by organizing gatherings like the Common Threads Conference, which brings people together to discuss emerging issues and trends within the sector. “That’s where the seeds of innovation begin,” Harrison says. “And that can inform education, it can inform research and it can inform service.”

“We see our program as an academic pathway,” Harrison says. “Our community and students are now saying, ‘We would like to see a course on this or that, more accessible, affordable and flexible courses, and a degree or a minor or a major because this is what we need to succeed or want to study and do.'"

Last year’s conference addressed the question: How do we become more representative of the communities we serve? The conference featured a panel of local experts, talking circles and a keynote by Patricia Bradshaw, dean of the Sobey School of Business at Saint Mary’s University and a professor of Management. Bradshaw’s keynote drew from research she had conducted and published on diversity and inclusion in the governance of non-profit organizations in Canada.

Participants, including students and local practitioners, left the conference with protocols, practices and evidence that diversity is a powerful tool that has transformed non-profit boards and organizations. The conference also planted the seed for a new NSLI course – Managing Diversity in Nonprofit Organizations – which launched in the winter 2019 semester.

“We see our program as an academic pathway,” Harrison says. “Our community and students are now saying, ‘We would like to see a course on this or that, more accessible, affordable and flexible courses, and a degree or a minor or a major because this is what we need to succeed or want to study and do.’”

“Absolutely,” says Martinez about the idea of a degree option. She says graduating from the program has sharpened her interest in areas of the non-profit sector not tackled deeply by the certificate.

Sackville, too, says a degree program or more robust formalized education in the non-profit and voluntary sectors will open doors for early career workers. “I think that charitable and non-profit organizations in Canada are moving in that direction,” she says. “They want to mitigate talent gaps down the road, and hiring and retaining qualified staff is the way to do that.”

For more information on the program, click here.


Iryn Tushabe is a Ugandan independent journalist and writer living in Saskatchewan. Her literary journalism has appeared in Canadian publications, including Prairies North magazine, and in Uganda’s New Vision newspaper.