Initial Thoughts on the 2012 ONPHA Conference

I am starting to write this while waiting for the ONPHA opening plenary to begin. Yesterday I attended a wonderful session on making board meetings better, facilitated by a woman who had spent significant time at Madonna House. My approach to chairing was reaffirmed in the session, but I came away from the workshop with ideas to make meetings more enjoyable.

I am unable to check my email because ONPHA hasn’t made arrangements with the Sheridan for this service. It was a surprise to go to a public gathering without access to internet/free wi-fi.

Going to a CHFC AGM it is, for me, a homecoming; going to the ONPHA conference is a different experience. Here I am on the fringes, not really a part of the organisation. I have been at several ONPHA conferences over the years but each time it feels that I am somewhat of a stranger. And the participants are less friendly. People seem to avoid eye contact with strangers, don’t respond to greetings unless it comes from people they know and move in cliques, more like a school ground than a meeting of people with shared visions and dreams. The friendly voices are those that know me from elsewhere, primarily the co-op world but also lawyers, accountants, credit union officials and those from my neighbourhood.

My feeling of being an outsider may be due to the nature of the organisation. ONPHA isn’t a reflection of a movement but is more of a sectoral interest group—primarily municipal non-profits and small and large private non-profits and a very small co-op presence. The participants have things in common, a commitment of service to others and a still lingering sense of the value of a non-profit and non-commercial approach to meeting human needs, but unlike co-op members they do not have a core sense of mutual service. In co-ops we work together to meet our needs as a part of meeting the needs of others. Co-operators both offer and accept efforts to meet common needs. I am a movement person, not someone comfortable with being a part of a group firmly linked to the institutions of our world.

I return to the ONPHA conferences, when they are in Toronto, primarily because of the workshops. ONPHA has the resources to offer a wider range of workshops than CHF can. There are practical services both CHF and ONPHA offer, from bulk buying to policy development, but ONPHA does provide a far wider variety of workshops.


The opening plenary of ONPHA was inspiring but one way—-the information and ideas flow from those at the front of the room. There are no microphones or other indications that ONPHA members have a voice. Those that speak do have an impact—the launch of a three year public awareness campaign was well received and Tonya Surman’s keynote speech had an impact on many participants.

Very corporate language has crept into the overall understanding of the organisation. Sylvia Patterson’s opening remarks referred to ‘the new normal’ of life after strong government support. It came across as a retrenchment speech, not as a call to action. Perhaps because of the strong relationship with government (i.e. the plenary was sponsored by the provincial ministry of housing) it is hard for ONPHA to be a strong advocate for a third sector that is neither corporate or state, something CHFC and other co-op sector organisations excel at.

The three year public awareness campaign, which can found on line at, should be effective in raising awareness of the value of affordable housing across society—from jobs creation to health care costs.
Tonya Surman, from the Centre for Social Innovation, gave an excellent key note presentation. I particularly liked the image of fixing the future. CSI has served as a real incubator of new approaches to working together that the third sector has nurtured. Tonya touched on a number of organisation from collaborative funding (community bonds) to rethinking the ways organisations make decisions.


In all the workshops I attended participants wanted to talk. The number of participants and structure of the workshops sometimes limited the participation to responses to workshop leader(s) or even no direct interaction. All the leaders were knowledgeable about the topic, open to ideas and challenges (during the workshop or afterwards) and enthusiastic presenters.

The majority of participants are women, although a larger portion of males that I have seen in recent gatherings of co-ops and non-profits.

ONPHA does an excellent job in selecting topics that meet the needs of board, staff and tenants of non-profits. Some are very practical ones, such as reading financial statements or finding alternative financing; some are on issues related to affordable housing such as food security; some are on issues such as when to call children’s aid or what to do when a tenant dies that are essential to building safe and secure communities.


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