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The Challenge & Opportunity of the Social Profit Sector in the RMWB

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In every community the not-for-profit or social profit sector forms a backbone of services that provides a social safety net for the citizens.

This is no different in the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, with hundreds of social profit organizations serving the needs of the communities that make up the region. As in every community there are challenges and opportunities faced by these organizations as they work every day to meet their mandate and to fulfill their vision and mission as they make a difference in the lives of those who choose Wood Buffalo as their home. The Wood Buffalo region, however, can present some unique challenges for the social profit sector given the high cost of property and the rapid growth in the region, as well as a changing demographic.

“Is this struggle greater because of location? Well I would say yes and no,” says Arianna Johnson, Executive Director of the Wood Buffalo Food Bank. “Yes because everything costs more here so we have to raise increased funds compared to our counterparts in similar sized communities. But I would also say no as the amount of giving and the care that the majority of industry takes with the social sector is much greater than in larger centres. Nonetheless this burden could be greatly eased if we were able to secure multi-year agreements for programs and sponsorships of events.”

Johnson adds, “The spread of the region makes it difficult to provide services to the whole region. The cost of transportation is very prohibitive and makes servicing anything outside of Fort McMurray difficult for most agencies.”

The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo covers several communities, from the fly-in or ice-road accessible communities to the north such as Fort Chipewyan and the communities to the south of Fort McMurray such as Janvier and Conklin. The far-flung nature of the municipality creates challenges for the social profit organizations attempting to serve the needs of all residents of the RMWB, and along with the geographic challenge there is the additional challenge of rapid population growth as the industry expands.

Affordable space is also a concern. Says Johnson: “Space is a funny subject - it has many facets and many degrees of severity. But when it comes right down to it the issue the non-profit sector faces is the cost of space. Truth be told, space can always be found but it cannot always be afforded.”

Tara Clarke, Executive Director of the Fort McMurray SPCA, shares some of the concerns about the challenges facing the sector as the region continues to experience rapid growth: “The community is growing and thus changing at a rapid rate, and these conditions can make it difficult to meet the needs of regional residents as the capacity and resources of not for profit agencies are often maxed as it is.”

The challenge of increased population growth is one that worries many social profit agencies as they find the demands for their services increasing at the same pace of community growth, and they struggle to meet the challenge.

Says Barbara Rex, the staff member in charge of Fund Development and Communications at the Centre of Hope: “Our cost of living is high, and our community can be at times transient. We have a large population growth and some individuals do not come prepared, or their preparations turn upside down when they are here. These are all things we see as a social-profit agency servicing the needs of those experiencing or at-risk-of homelessness in our community. We work together with private and public housing to ensure we are able to support our patrons and because of our close knit social-profit sector we are able to comfortably reach out and engage other supports. With the plans for the Fort McMurray airport to go international, it is something we are preparing for as we believe this may impact the dynamic of the patrons we see.”

It seems all social profit organizations agree on one thing, however, and that is the generous and giving nature of the community. The strong participation and philanthropy of both industry and community members allows the organizations to continue to meet the needs of the residents of the region.

Says Clarke: “We live in such a generous community, a community in which employers encourage such generosity whether through employee matching programs and employee driven grants and gifts, as well as volunteer initiatives and services in kind. These programs benefit us all and make our community whole.”

Rex adds: “In terms of sponsors and donors, our community is amazingly giving. We have the small town mentality with the energy of a big city. This means our community leaders, and we have so many amazing leaders in this community, are very present and approachable. They are always busy planning for the success of our community. They are members of the community and as much as you see them in their professional lives you can also see that they are very much a part of the community as they live here too. This is important in the world of non-profit because we become a familiar face and are able to demonstrate the amazing work that we do for our municipality. Our municipality has heart. It has energy. We work together for the greater benefit of our community. I believe we have really understood that in the RMWB’s social-profit sector.”

Johnson believes there are two key facets to the success of social profit organizations in the region: opportunity and generosity.

“Opportunity is everywhere in every aspect of this industry, new ideas, career advancement, creativity, collaboration, these are all things that just work better here because it has to and because this community moves faster than most. We are often afforded opportunities here that in other places would take years to attain. And generosity - this community responds to need very well and quickly,” she says when asked about the benefits of operating a social profit agency in the RMWB.

She adds that planning for the future is essential, especially given the anticipated future growth in population, and has some thoughts for the social profit agencies in the region: “Learn from your failures, be proactive, don’t wait for things to get so bad that you’re playing catch up, move with the times and try to proactively plan for all possibilities so when things go sideways you can respond quickly and professionally rather than trying to plan in reactionary mode. Develop contingency plans for sudden population growth or changes in environment or political agendas - these are all things we all need to ensure we are doing.”

It seems certain that as the community grows the social profit sector will continue to rise to meet the challenges and work collaboratively to make Wood Buffalo a place that all can call home.


A freelance writer, blogger and professional communicator who is passionate about her child, her work, her pets, her community and the power of words, Theresa Wells believes perfection in life is achieved when she is surrounded by amazing people, fantastic stories, cold gin and really hot shoes.