05/25/2016 12:55 EDT | Updated 05/26/2017 05:12 EDT

Thinking Of Not-For-Profit Organizations As Today's Change Agents

When you think of a not-for-profit organization, "change agent" probably isn't the first thing that comes to mind. But maybe it should be. Today, more and more not-for-profit organizations are not only making a difference, they are making it by doing things differently.

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When you think of a not-for-profit organization, "change agent" probably isn't the first thing that comes to mind. But maybe it should be. Today, more and more not-for-profit organizations are not only making a difference, they are making it by doing things differently.

As the old proverb goes, necessity really is the mother of invention. Combine skyrocketing demands on social services and decreasing funding especially as markets and economies experience volatility -- and out springs innovation.

Over my 25 years working with hundreds of not-for-profits, I have seen some truly awesome achievements, but nothing compares to the kind of innovation that's going on in the not-for-profit sector these days.

The psyche of today's new breed of not-for-profit organizations is all about innovation -- it's entrepreneurial. This mindset will serve Canada well as our population continues to age, becomes more diverse, and needs more help.

In fact, innovative thinking will add momentum to the already large and growing not-for-profit sector. This is conveyed in a June 2015 report that examines charities in Canada as an economic sector, "The charitable sector has expanded rapidly in the last two decades and is now a major sector in Canada, supporting a large number of jobs and creating significant economic growth."

And, to be clear, innovation is no longer just the turf of high-tech companies and sports manufacturers; not-for-profits have joined the ranks of the cool kids. Their innovative approaches are making them today's change agents. They are the unsung heroes on the frontlines who are making a difference by thinking and acting differently.

Today's change agents

Change agents have the courage and the drive to do whatever is best for the community--they define, research, plan, build, support, and partner to make change a reality.

As an example of a change agent in action, I'd like to share a day-in-the-life of Sideeka Narayan. She is a registered nurse who has risen to the challenge of shaping the way the Access Alliance Health With Dignity program is providing care in Toronto.

You definitely won't find Ms. Narayan locked away in a back office doing paperwork all day. And you won't find her stuck on the phone for hours trying to cut through bureaucratic red tape. Plus, nine to five has no meaning in her world.

Ms. Narayan spends her days in perpetual motion--she's on the frontlines wearing many hats while managing the Health With Dignity 'pop-up' clinic for Syrian refugees. The clinic is located at the Toronto Plaza Hotel, which is housing the largest number of government-assisted refugees as they arrive.

"Pop-up" clinic--now that's an innovative approach to making a difference. As Ms. Narayan explains, "Needless to say, newcomers have a lot to deal with and as a result, health is just one of the many needs they are juggling. So to make a real difference, we must go to them, not the other way around."

At the hotel clinic, a diverse team including clinic coordinator, medical secretary, practitioners, nurse navigators, midwife and volunteers ensure that urgent healthcare needs are addressed through referrals to community services. Pregnant women, people with chronic diseases, and children with disabilities all get the help they need right away. Onsite the team handles health issues like respiratory viruses and flu symptoms.

Ms. Narayan explains that in addition to urgent care, to drive big picture change, the team also makes connections for healthcare follow-up and ongoing healthcare. "Our emphasis is on treating each person as an individual and treating the whole person, not one-size-fits-all, so we're part of a network of 29 health clinics. We work through Women's College Hospital to get people connected to these clinics. This way, once their immediate health needs are addressed, they are now in the system so their families can start to get ongoing care."

So it's not just the "pop-up" aspect of the clinic that's innovative, what's also unique is the focus on helping newcomers navigate the healthcare system. It would be the rare among us who are English-speaking homegrown Canadians who can't relate to the challenges of navigating the system, I shudder to think how tough it must be for newcomers.

Navigating a brighter future

As a change agent -- or put another way, as a visionary who gets things done -- Ms. Narayan sees system navigation as an essential component to improving access to better health.

"To make healthcare accessible to all Canadians, which increasingly includes newcomers, navigation services must become a standard part of how we operate. Otherwise, realistically when you think of all the barriers, is healthcare actually accessible without navigation support?"

Ms. Narayan goes on to explain that navigation services shouldn't be limited to just healthcare. "Although Health With Dignity's immediate goal is to ensure immediate access to healthcare, we are also focused on the bigger picture long term. To make sure we really make a difference, we connect people to any type of service that is appropriate for their situation so this could include clothing, housing, education, and jobs, really any number of services. Ultimately, this leads to self-sufficiency, people gain control over their lives."

Change agents like Ms. Narayan are in fact entrepreneurs. They are changing the game to improve access for marginalized Canadians, not just to better health, but to a brighter future overall. It all starts with providing support -- support for any combination of needs.

The Health With Dignity hotel pop-up clinic ran from January to April 2016 until it transitioned to the settlement agency partner COSTI Immigrant Services.

Sarah Saso is executive director of the Green Shield Canada Foundation. As Canada's only national not-for-profit health and dental specialist, fundamental to Green Shield's uniqueness is their philosophy of striving to make health care accessible to all Canadians. The Change Agent series aims to shine a light on the people and the organizations committed to creating innovative solutions that improve access to better health for marginalized Canadians and drive big picture change in Canadian health care.

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