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Alberta’s Civil Society: What’s government got to do with it?

Written by: Dr. Alina Turner

Last week’s provincial budget prioritized civil society as a critical partner to improve well-being for Albertans. A Premier’s Charities Council is being proposed “to advise government on how best to assist the efforts of civil society groups in helping to make Alberta a more compassionate society, preventing and reducing increased social problems.” But what exactly is civil society and what is its role in the province’s future?

During the 2019 provincial election, the United Conservative Party emphasized on the importance of “harnessing the power of civil society” and proposed the adoption of a number of measures aimed at reducing bureaucratic burdens and creating, wherever possible, partnerships between the government and civil society organizations to deliver government programs and services. From this perspective, civil society should come before the government, as voluntary groups are generally more effective in preventing and reducing social problems than a cumbersome, bureaucratic state.

What is “civil society”?

Let’s start off with some clarifications; firstly, there are no clear nor consistent definitions of civil society – though overall, there seems to be agreement that as a concept, it refers to the activities of individuals, community groups, labour unions, social movements, nonprofit, charitable and informal  organizations outside of the state or market, working  in the pursuit of a common good.

 Unfortunately, there is no comprehensive dataset to tell us the details about all civil society stakeholders, let alone activities, scope of work, revenues/expenditures, or outcomes. We have to make assumptions and piece data together from various sources, which are at times obfuscated by less than ideal information sharing and collection practices.

Here’s is some of what we do know:


  • The economic value of volunteering plays an important role in the provincial economy. In 2013, the most recent year of currently available data on volunteering, its economic value was estimated to add an extra $5.5 billion to the province’s economic activity.
  • To date, it is estimated that the nonprofit sector in Alberta consists of over 25,200 charities and non-profit organizations, including community associations, sports and recreation organizations, faith-based organizations, arts and cultural groups, health and wellness groups, involved in the delivery of a variety of services such as housing, social services, newcomer settlement or senior services. This is a rapidly growing sector, which saw about a 40% growth in the last decade. We do not know what the revenues sources of the nonprofits in Alberta are as this is not available as Open Data.
  • Alberta had a total of 8,981 registered charities, accounting for about 36% of the nonprofit sector in the province, and hosting 11% of all charities in Canada: the fourth largest concentration of charities in the country after Ontario (36%), Quebec (19%) and British Columbia (14%). The total economic activity of charities in the province totaled $35 billion, of which $26 billion (75%) came from revenues going to public charities. This represents 11% of Alberta’s total GDP in 2017.
  • While we don’t often think of Alberta Health Services, universities, colleges, or school boards as charities, at the federal level, they fall under the registered charity category of the Income Tax Act and are regulated as such by the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA). Thus, 10% of the charities in the province were public charities, while the majority of them (90%) were non-public charities.
  • As expected, the majority of the government charities (58%) are dedicated to the delivery of health (9%) and educational (49%) services. In contrast, following the national trend, religious charities make up a significant portion of the charitable sector in Alberta at 42%, followed by those focused on the provision of benefits to the community (19%) and welfare (18%).
  • Compared to non-public charities, public charities have grown at a much faster pace increasing their proportion within the sector from 3% of the total number of charities in the province in 1970, to 10% in 2017.
  • While the majority of the revenue going to public charities came from the provincial government (85% or $22 million), a significant proportion (13% or $3.4 million) came from voluntary contributions such as donations or fee-for-service and fundraising activities.
  • Interestingly, only 34% or $8.6 million of the revenue going to non-public charities in Alberta came from the provincial government, and a significant proportion of income (60% or $5.2 million) came from voluntary contributions.
  • Of note, there is a significant difference in the average salary to employees in the charitable sector. While the average annual salary per job in all charities was $42,000, the average salary in public charities was close to $61,700, compared to $19,400 in the non-public charitable sector.


Can civil society be part of the answer to Alberta’s deficit challenges when it comes to unmet social, health, and other well-being needs?

There is an interdependent relationship between government and civil society. Government relies on civil society actors, such as charities and nonprofits, to address population needs within the provincial government purview. This goes much further than the public charities of the health and education sectors, given the diversity of organizations working on poverty, disabilities, addictions, homelessness, and social inclusion who are still predominantly funded by the government for the provision of such services. As non-public charities self-fund over 60% of the revenues needed to deliver religious activities, benefits to the community, welfare and other activities. This suggests that non-public charities are essential and complement government investment to support Albertan’s wellbeing.

What can the government do to support civil society? 

Firstly, Alberta would benefit from clear policy direction on the role civil society plays in the social safety net. This should articulate levels and standards of service, performance measures and integration with public and private sectors to ensure a consistent value to Albertans and quality of support across different parts of the province. Ideally, we would have much better Open Data to understand the nonprofit sector as well, its revenues, expenditures, activities, and outcomes.

The government can and should consider enhancing the tax measures to support financial contributions to the civil society sector and advance Alberta’s social enterprise strategies to complement traditional nonprofit and charity models. Lastly, enhanced capacity building and incubation support for informal civil society activities outside of registered organizations should be considered that do not hinge on administratively burdensome contracts to support Albertans’ community engagement and social innovation.

Dr. Alina Turner, is a Research Fellow with The School of Public Policy & CEO of HelpSeeker