Michael Fullan

Planning for the future, remembering our past

  • May 10, 2013

Where to begin when looking ahead for Catholic Charities, an organization that has been caring for the most needy of the archdiocese of Toronto for over a century? Consulting a fortune teller or reading the stars aren’t options for a Catholic agency committed to the Gospel message of Christ — to love and serve God and one another.

Basic to any planning process is understanding the current environment and respecting what has come before. You have to know where you’ve been before deciding where you want to go.

Toronto in 1913 was dealing with significant social problems. The archdiocese had been at the forefront for many years already in providing social services when Catholic Charities was established to co-ordinate various Catholic services and to plan for the emerging social needs of the growing community. The early focus was on the most vulnerable of society — the widows, orphans, youth in trouble with the law, the elderly, the destitute, unmarried pregnant women. Today, services are also provided for troubled families, women and children experiencing abuse, people with developmental disabilities, immigrants and refugees, expectant mothers and their babies and homeless youth.

It seems no matter the era, the poor are with us in many forms and as a Catholic community we are compelled to respond, as set out in the Church’s Corporal Works of Mercy.

In Acts of the Apostles, we learn that the people of Antioch were the first to name followers of Jesus Christians. They were astonished at how these Christians “love one another.” I would like to believe that this remains true in today’s world, where we love one another, regardless of faith, economic or social background, because each of us is created in the image and likeness of God, who asks us to reach out and serve all in need.

Catholic Charities and its agencies are experiencing tough economic times resulting in higher demand for precious services. Organizations like Good Shepherd Centre and Covenant House are seeing marked increases in homeless adults and youth. The Mary Centre identifies hundreds of adults with intellectual disabilities whose elderly parents are unable to care for their adult children any longer. Government funding is frozen resulting in a bottleneck in the service system with no relief in sight.

As part of a regular discernment process, Catholic Charities takes stock of our many gifts and blessings — the generous ongoing prayer and support of parishioners and pastors through ShareLife, the sacrifice of countless volunteers offering thousands of hours of service annually and the supportive and encouraging shepherds in Cardinal Thomas Collins and our bishops. We have a solid foundation but by itself it is insufficient to resolve the current crisis.

Catholic Charities is a unique service system comprising many agencies of various size and focus. Each month I meet with the executive directors to discuss mutual areas of concern. A great deal of time is spent identifying key issues and problems, followed by careful analysis and development of plans to reduce harm and build up community. Simply, the model is to see, to judge, to act. These agencies are diverse but united in their faith and commitment to the common good.

The strong positive relationships between executive directors and agencies are based on trust, openness and collaboration. This gives me confidence that we’ll find ways to deal effectively with current and future challenges. The status quo is not a viable option and collectively we intend to expand services. We recognize that current organizational structures should and will change. I have coined this as “doing more (service), together, differently.” This approach is much different from government suggestions to “do more with less.”

A couple major future thrusts will be a rollout of shared services and development of yardsticks to measure the social return on investment. I can’t predict how relevant these initiatives will be a century from now, but for the next several years they will be transformative within Catholic Charities and beyond. We have been asked to lead in these areas, to take normative risks, to dream, to evaluate and to share the successes and failures (both sure to happen!) beyond our community.

Implementation of the shared services initiative, in the planning phase for over a year, has already begun. Finance and human-resource services are being migrated from many of the agencies into a shared back-office environment. Information technology functions will be addressed next. This approach will create greater efficiencies and improve service delivery.

Calculating the social return on investment is a way to measure the value that is added to the community by the services provided. Take the example of a young pregnant teen who receives counselling at one of our organizations and then returns to school. This mom is less likely to need emergency health services and more likely to graduate. Long term, she is more likely to build a life for her and her baby that avoids abusive relationships and is less reliant on social assistance. Our job is to assess the positive impact of this intervention and to make a compelling case for support to government, foundations and our parishioners.

Parishes have been integral to the success of Catholic Charities for the last century, even as the relationship has evolved over the years. We need to re-solidify the essence of that relationship and, together with parishes, respond to those in their communities who need help. The Archdiocesan Pastoral Plan identifies this hopeful potential and I believe it should be part of a sustainable and effective system. It is an opportunity to rejuvenate parish life as well as the work of Catholic agencies.

As we celebrate 100 years of helping and service through Catholic Charities, it is appropriate to remember and give prayerful thanks to all those who, over the past century, shared their gifts of time and talent. We stand on the shoulders of those who came before us.

(Fullan is Executive Director of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Toronto.)