Thank you Mike.
The demise of democracy to the monied class is a scary situation for Canadians. Being ''not as bad as in America' is no cause for complacency.Money is buying government here just as much.
A slide to democratic suicide
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October 28, 2012
VANCOUVER, BC, Oct. 28,2012/ Troy Media/ – Let me be anecdotal, and let me air some suspicions. As a devoted member of civil society (that zone outside of family, business and government where citizens associate to advance the common good), and an ardent supporter of charitable non- governmental organizations (NGOs), I have spent over 30 years going to board meetings, listening to executive directors’ reports, scrutinizing financials, debating various pros and cons, and voting on motions. I have generally felt useful. And I have become more and more aware that I owe my democratic education to participating in this process.
By reading board kits, attending the ritual NGO meetings, and paying attention to discussion and respectful argument, I have learnt what it is to participate in the creation of governance policy, the oversight of management and staff action, and the measurement of subjective and objective outcomes. The annual cycle of quarterly board meetings, related committee meetings, and annual AGMs has shaped my personal life as well.
So what’s changing? Since the global financial collapse of fall 2008, the NGOs I have served (as board member or CEO) have had to enter a new realm of struggle. As my son would say at this juncture, ‘So what else is new, Dr. Obvious?’ Well – simply that more and more board time is spent on operational economics, and less and less on the actual work of the NGO. Several of my old employers, venerable NGOs with long life histories, are now reporting colossal deficits. For example, the Glenbow Museum in Calgary has run deficits of over $1,000,000 for four years in a row. So far all of the deficit spending has been paid for by endowment draws. Obviously, this operational philosophy has ‘defined contribution limits’, to use pension plan jargon.
Recently I have begun to monitor the amount of time each NGO board meeting I attend concentrates on survival finance and sustainability of the business model. Several have now exceeded the 50 per cent marker. This means that more than half of each board meeting is consumed by development committee reports, finance committee angst, and executive director tension.
As the quest for dollars begins to dominate board governance, you can also assume that it already dominates staff work. A board that is devoting over half of its time to governing cash flow and debt is spending less than half of its time governing what the NGO was actually created to do. In NGO parlance we call this ‘content.’
My hypothesis is that any NGO spending 51 per cent or greater of its governance time on finances, for more than one budget cycle (usually a fiscal year), is headed for oblivion. Oblivion can be forestalled, but putting off the obvious does not resolve the obvious.
A second observation hypothetically noted is that, like the people who serve them, NGOs have lives. Finite lives. And it is natural and normal that some may die. For-profit corporations do it all the time. It has always amazed me that two of the NGOs I have led in my career (the Arctic Institute and Glenbow) have a collective 113 years of life between them. How many Canadian corporations can say that?
What, then, are the consequences of my hypothetical observations? Quite simply, some of our NGOs are in the process of preparing for death. And if prevailing economic conditions worsen, the NGO hospice will experience unparalleled demand over the next five years.
If I am right, so what? A first consequence will be fewer NGOs to teach the fundamental duties of citizens in a democratic society. Without all of those nights burning the midnight oil in church basements, how will meeting etiquette, Roberts Rules of Order, and persuasive rhetoric be learned and practiced?
It further concerns me that we are already dealing with a democratic deficit, as fewer and fewer Canadians bother to vote municipally, provincially and federally. With less training in democratic fundamentals, are citizens more likely to vote? I think not. If fewer citizens participate in democracy, we must ask who stands to benefit?
I think these benefits will accrue to the interests best served by voter suppression, spin, hype, attack ads, and Faustian bargains. Those interests are not those of the common good or the intelligent long view; they are rather those of private interests and oligarchic government. Given that most oligarchs are plutocrats, we are facing a collective societal slide from democracy to plutocracy: rule by the wealthy. The ancient Greeks warned against this, and so should we.
Troy Media syndicated columnist Mike Robinson has lived half of his life in Alberta and half in B.C. In Calgary he worked for eight years in the oil patch, 14 in academia, and eight years as a cultural CEO. Now back In Vancouver, he is still a cultural CEO, but also has business interests in a resource company and mutual funds.
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