Rethinking Finance for Immigrant Settlement Support

Just before Christmas 2010, Ontario’s immigration and settlement sector received a very unwelcome gift from the federal government. Over $43m in cuts were announced to 53 nonprofits working with immigrants in the province. Some organizations lost 100% of their government funding and hundreds of settlement staff will be laid off in the coming months.

Thankfully, in January 2011, a grassroots campaign called Rewind the Cuts was launched to advocate maintaining funding to these organizations. This campaign, however, faces an uncertain outcome. It’s possible that this is simply the beginning of a wave of cuts to settlement services in the coming years.

Regardless of whether Citizenship & Immigration Canada reverses its decision, it may be time for immigrant agencies to start thinking about a “Plan B” in terms of how they provide support to newcomers.

We all know that there is tremendous entrepreneurial drive among Canada’s immigrant communities. There are also settlement challenges, as many newcomers are highly educated but face barriers finding employment in their fields. Settlement agencies have stepped in to provide a valuable service. Not only do they provide counseling support for new immigrants, but many of these agencies are places where community support systems are built, where families learn about being Canadian and people become engaged in civil society. If Canada’s future depends upon immigration, then it’s critical for Canadian society that immigrant families are able to settle and integrate.

But a traditional reliance on federal government dollars for community-building, employment support and settlement services has been fraught with problems. Everything from increasingly onerous compliance issues to the uncertainty of annual program funding have created a sector that is disempowered and overworked.

It’s time that the immigrant sector explored new financial models for community building. And it’s time that the social finance movement began exploring its relationship with immigrant communities.

Toronto’s Maytree Foundation is clearly a leader in this area. In the past decade, they’ve shifted their role from a grantmaker to an organization that uses its financial heft to develop innovative programs for immigrants to engage in public policy, governance and leadership. How is Maytree a reimagined financial model? It’s moved from a charitable mindset to something more. Maytree operates in strong partnership with other organizations. It focuses on the strengths of newcomers instead of the problems they have.

This kind of paradigm change in thinking is what immigrant service organizations could consider.

Recently, I had the privilege of participating on the jury for a unique Toronto Enterprise Fund (TEF) competition. As part of a partnership with Action for Neighbourhood Change, a United Way-led community development initiative in Toronto’s “priority neighbourhoods”, TEF put out a call for resident-led social enterprises. There was something wonderful and powerful about watching groups of newcomers to Canada put forward creative, entrepreneurial ideas – not asking for charity, but asking for investment in their projects.

I was particularly inspired by a group of Bangladeshi immigrant women, many with graduate degrees but unable to find work in Canada, forming their own workers co-op designing and selling fabrics and clothing. Their project ended up being funded through a micro-grant from TEF that included capacity building support for further business development. The energy of thousands of such individuals needs to be connected to new forms of capital outside the traditional realm of service delivery and settlement funding. Settlement agencies need to explore how they can become hubs for such kinds of projects.

For those working on social finance: Is it possible to think that new kinds of social impact bonds could be invested in immigrant-focused projects? For the settlement community: Is it possible to reimagine how settlement services are delivered and organized? I believe so and I hope that leaders in both sectors explore the potential for collaboration.

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