National Survey of Non-profit and Voluntary Organizations




Non-profit and voluntary organizations are an integral part of society, serving as vehicles for engaging the efforts of millions of Canadians to address needs in their communities, according to a new study.

In 2003, Canadians took out 139 million memberships in non-profit and voluntary organizations, an average of four per person. One of the hallmarks of these organizations is their connection to the community through the participation of individual citizens.

Individual Canadians gave generously to organizations, both in terms of money and time. In 2003, Canadians donated more than $8 billion, and organizations reported a combined volunteer complement of more than 19 million who contributed more than 2 billion hours of volunteer time, or the equivalent of more than 1 million full-time jobs.

Nearly all non-profit and voluntary organizations make use of volunteers, and more than half rely solely on volunteers to fulfill their mission. However, most volunteers are concentrated among a relatively small number of organizations. Almost three-quarters (73%) are engaged by the 6% of organizations that have volunteer complements of 200 or more.

A majority of those that participated in this study reported having problems fulfilling their missions and achieving their organization's objectives. Many appear to be reporting significant challenges in providing the public with all the benefits they have the potential to offer, as well as problems recruiting volunteers and obtaining funding, both from individual donors and from other organizations, such as governments, foundations or corporations. Others said they had difficulties being able to plan for the future, or finding suitable people to sit on their boards.

Groups touch on virtually every aspect of Canadian life

Non-profit and voluntary organizations have a major impact on Canadians, touching on virtually every aspect of their life. In 2003, about 161,000 non-profit and voluntary organizations were operating across the country in a wide variety of areas.

The two largest groups of organizations operate in the area of sports and recreation (21%) and in religion (19%), both with about one-fifth of the organizations.

Nearly three-quarters provided services or products directly to people as opposed to other organizations. About 46% reported serving the general public, while children and youth were served by 23% of organizations, the elderly by 11% and people with disabilities by 8%. Other specific populations served include Aboriginal peoples, immigrant populations and religious communities.

About 56% are registered charities, which exempts them from a variety of taxes and enables their donors to claim tax credits. Registered charities are more prevalent among organizations that confer public benefits and depend on the financial contributions of Canadians to provide those benefits.

The vast majority of religious groups (94%) are charities, as are 87% of hospitals. In contrast, only about 27% of sports and recreation groups, 23% of groups working in development and housing, and 7% of business and professional associations and unions are charities.

Non-profit and voluntary organizations have just over 2 million paid employees. One-third (34%) of these people are employed by hospitals, universities and colleges.

Small number of organizations get majority of revenues

Non-profit and voluntary organizations posted $112 billion in revenues in 2003, making them a considerable presence in the economy. One-third of these revenues were attributable to a relatively few hospitals, colleges and universities. However, the remaining organizations still reported revenues of $75 billion.

A clear divide is apparent between organizations that have relatively plentiful resources (revenues, paid staff and volunteers) and those that do not.

About 1% of Canadian non-profit and voluntary organizations have annual revenues of $10 million or more. They account for 59% of all revenues.

In contrast, 42% of organizations have annual revenues of less than $30,000 and they account for just 1% of all revenues. Less than 3% of organizations report having no revenue.

On the other side of the divide is a much larger group of small-revenue organizations. Just over one-half of all organizations are operated solely by volunteers, and nearly two-thirds report annual revenues of less than $100,000.

For example, sports and recreation and religious groups comprise 40% of all organizations, but they account for only 11% of total revenues.

Majority of funding from provincial governments

Overall, governments provide 49% of the funds that organizations receive, of which four-fifths comes from provincial governments.

Earned income from non-governmental sources, generated by memberships and sales of goods and services, as well as investment income and charitable gaming, accounts for a further 35% of revenues. Gifts and donations represent 13%. The remaining 3% of revenues come from a myriad of other sources.

Larger organizations , those with annual revenues of $10 million or more, depend on government sources for more than half (58%) of total revenues.

Smaller organizations (those with annual revenues of less than $30,000) depend more on earned income from non-government sources. These account for 51% of total revenues, and include revenues from membership fees and gifts and donations. Government sources account for only 12% of total revenues for smaller organizations.

Governments are a major source of revenues for several organizations. Hospitals get 82% of total revenues from governments, followed by health-related organizations (70%), social services (66%) and universities and colleges (56%). Provincial governments provide the lion's share of funding.

Challenges: Money, volunteers and planning for the future

Non-profit and voluntary organizations appear to be experiencing difficulties fulfilling their missions or achieving their organizational objectives, which may limit their ability to contribute to the community.

Just over one-half reported having problems with planning for the future, recruiting the types of volunteers needed, and obtaining board members.

Just under one-half reported difficulty retaining volunteers, obtaining funding from other organizations such as government, foundations or corporations, and difficulty obtaining funding from individual donors.

Organizations with smaller revenues, that is, less than $30,000, were generally least likely to report problems. These organizations typically use fewer resources, such as paid staff, volunteers and money, to achieve their missions.

Larger organizations, which require more resources to meet their mandates, were more likely to report problems, such as difficulty retaining volunteers and difficulty providing training to volunteers. However, certain problems such as difficulty earning revenues were reported less frequently by organizations with revenues of $10 million or more.

While difficulty obtaining funding from other organizations is a major problem for many, 20% of non-profit and voluntary organizations said it was a serious problem.

Regional variations: Highest proportion of organizations in central Canada

Combined, Quebec (29%) and Ontario (28%) account for more than one-half of all non-profit and voluntary organizations.

Relative to population, Quebec has a 40% higher concentration of organizations than Ontario. Nevertheless, Ontario commands 43% of all revenues, 40% of all volunteers and 47% of all employees.

While government is the major source of funding for organizations in most regions, organizations in Alberta, New Brunswick and the territories rely more on earned income from non-governmental sources.

Organizations in the territories, Newfoundland and Labrador and Manitoba are more likely than others to report problems relating to their capacity to engage volunteers and obtain funding. Those in New Brunswick and British Columbia are least likely to do so.

More than two-thirds (68%) of all organizations in New Brunswick were registered charities, the highest proportion in Canada, followed by 65% in Nova Scotia and 62% in Manitoba. Quebec and the territories were the only areas in which the incidence of registered charities was below the national average of 56%.

In every province and territory, there are more organizations working in the areas of religion, sports and recreation, and social services than in any other area of activity. Religious organizations account for the highest proportion of organizations in all regions, except British Columbia, Alberta, Quebec and the territories.

Note to readers

This release is based on the report Cornerstones of Community: Highlights from the National Survey of Non-profit and Voluntary Organizations , which analyses results from the National Survey of Non-profit and Voluntary Organizations (NSNVO).

The survey gathered data from representatives of about 13,000 incorporated non-profit organizations and registered charities in 2003. They were asked to report on the characteristics of their organization and the factors that influenced the capacity of their organization to achieve its mission.

This study is based on data from the National Survey of Non-profit and Voluntary Organizations, which offers the most comprehensive profile of non-profit and voluntary organizations ever done in Canada. For the first time, baseline information is available about the size and attributes of these organizations.

Non-profit and voluntary organizations, by primary activity area


Primary activity area

% of all organizations

Arts and culture


Sports and recreation


Education and research


Universities and colleges






Social services




Development and housing


Law, advocacy and politics


Grant-making, fundraising and voluntarism promotion






Business and professional associations and unions


Organizations not elsewhere classified


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