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Cornerstones of Community:
Highlights of the National Survey of Nonprofit and Voluntary Organizations

The National Survey of Nonprofit and Voluntary Organizations (NSNVO) provides the first national portrait of the many thousands of nonprofit and voluntary organizations that are the cornerstones of Canadian communities. It reveals a set of organizations that are widely diverse in nature, touching virtually every aspect of Canadians' lives. These organizations have a significant economic presence and serve as vehicles for citizen engagement, involving millions of Canadians in their activities as members, volunteers and financial donors. However, many nonprofit and voluntary organizations report significant challenges to their capacity to fulfill their missions and achieve their organizational objectives.

An estimated 161,000 nonprofit and voluntary organizations operated in Canada in 2003. They include a wide variety of organizations, such as day-care centres, sports clubs, arts organizations, social clubs, private schools, hospitals, food banks, environmental groups, trade associations, places of worship, advocates for social justice, and groups that raise funds to cure diseases. Just over half are registered as charities by the federal government, which allows them to be exempt from a variety of taxes and enables their donors to claim tax credits for donations made.

What they have in common is their pursuit of goals to serve the public or their members, as well as an institutional form that does not allow the profits to be distributed to owners or directors.

Nonprofit and voluntary organizations,1 for the purposes of this study, are defined as organizations that meet all the following criteria:

  • non-governmental (i.e., are institutionally separate from governments)
  • non-profit distributing (i.e., do not return any profits generated to their owners or directors)2
  • self-governing (i.e., are independent and able to regulate their own activities)
  • voluntary (i.e., benefit to some degree from voluntary contributions of time or money)
  • formally incorporated or registered under specific legislation with provincial, territorial or federal governments.3

The scope of the NSNVO excludes grass-roots organizations or citizens' groups that are not formally incorporated or registered with provincial, territorial or federal governments.4 It also excludes some registered charities that are considered to be public sector agencies (e.g., school boards, public libraries and public schools).

What type of information does the NSNVO provide?

The NSNVO provides a comprehensive picture of the role that nonprofit and voluntary organizations play in Canadian life. It documents their numbers and regional distributions,5 the areas in which they work, the populations they serve, the extent to which they provide public benefits, the financial resources they rely on, their role as employers, and the volunteers they engage. It also identifies the challenges organizations report with respect to their capacity to achieve their missions. The information has implications for the development of public policy pertaining to nonprofit and voluntary organizations, and provides a benchmark for future studies of this important set of institutions.


1. Many terms are used to describe the various organizations that are of interest to the NSNVO—voluntary, nonprofit, charities, third sector, civil society, and community-based. We have chosen the term 'nonprofit and voluntary.' For a discussion of these terms and a rationale for using them, see A.R. Febbraro, M.H. Hall and M. Parmegianni, 1999, The Voluntary Health Sector in Canada: Developing a Typology—Definition and Classification Issues, Ottawa, Canadian Centre for Philanthropy, Canadian Policy Research Networks, The Coalition of National Voluntary Organizations and Health Canada. Return to text

2. A small number of co-operatives were also included in the study. J. Quarter, 1993, Canada's Social Economy, Co-operatives, Non-profits and Other Community Enterprises, Toronto, James Lorimer Publishing notes that some co-operatives—including credit unions and groups that deal with farm marketing and food retailing—do allow members to hold shares in the organization. The mission of these organizations is typically not to maximize profits and, unlike the shares of a business, the shares of such co-operatives do not entitle holders to dividends of any year-end surplus. Return to text

3. These criteria have been adapted from the International Classification of Nonprofit Organizations—see L.M. Salamon and H.K. Anheier, 1997, Defining the Nonprofit Sector: A Cross-national Analysis, Manchester, N.Y., Manchester University Press. Return to text

4. These grass-roots organizations undoubtedly play an important role in communities. Many incorporated nonprofit and voluntary organizations likely had their beginnings as less formal citizen groups. They have been excluded from the study because of the substantial difficulties identifying and locating them. Incorporated organizations are more likely to have some degree of permanence and to be able to respond to targeted initiatives to improve their capacity to serve the Canadian public. Return to text

5. While allowing for regional comparisons, information on the size of communities in which organizations operated was not collected. As a result, analyses of rural–urban variations are not possible. Return to text

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Date modified: 2004-09-22 Important Notices