Non-profit Immigrant-Serving Organizations: Roles and Challenges in Immigrant Settlement and Integration Process

By: Felix Ntenhene
March 29, 2024

There is a general trend toward a growing role of non-state actors, particularly nonprofit organisations, in providing settlement services and supporting immigrant integration. This trend is evident in various countries and reflects a shift towards involving civil society in addressing societal challenges (Shields et al., 2016).

This shift is exemplified by the “Big Society” initiative proposed by British Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, which advocates for a move away from a predominant role of the state in addressing societal challenges (Shields et al., 2016, p. 10). Governments are increasingly expressing a desire to transfer responsibilities and solutions for pressing societal problems to civil society, reflecting a broader movement towards engaging nonprofit organizations in addressing complex policy issues (Shields et al., 2016). For instance, while historically Canada had assimilation-based immigration policies, the current approach emphasizes inclusion and successful integration of immigrants into Canadian society (Shields et al., 2016). Settlement and integration support delivered through community-based immigrant-services providers are guided by the goal of successful integration (Huot et al., 2021). Nevertheless, the work of immigrant-serving organizations extends beyond immigrants’ empowerment to contribute to the overall development of communities (Berry, 2009). By fostering diversity and celebrating the contributions of immigrants, these organizations enrich the cultural fabric of society (Berry, 2009). This diversity, in turn, can lead to enhanced creativity, innovation, and economic growth within communities (Beery, 2009). Nonprofit immigrant-serving organizations educate the public on issues related to immigrants. They seek to raise awareness and promote understanding of the challenges faced by immigrants in the community (Wilson, 2011). However, Immigration Canada and the Federal Ministry of the Interior discovered that numerous G8 nations, including Canada, are contending with the challenges of the immigrant integration process (Shields et al., 2016). These challenges include 1) a lack of shared understanding regarding the concept of integration; 2) limitations in the effectiveness of government interventions; 3) difficulties in establishing partnerships to enhance the integration process; and 4) the determination of the most effective ways to involve sectors of civil society, including nonprofit organisations, ethnic groups, and religious communities, among other issues (Shields et al., 2016., p. 2).

The Roles of Nonprofit Immigrant Serving Organizations in Immigrant Settlement and Integration Process

Shields et al., (2016) describe settlement services as programs and support systems aimed at helping immigrants initiate the settlement process and navigate the necessary adjustments for life in their new society. The primary objective is to facilitate smooth transitions for immigrants, enabling them to actively participate in the economy and society of their host community. These services are designed to promote immigrant settlement, integration, and overall well-being (Shields et al., 2016). Governments at different levels of jurisdiction and various public institutions can directly offer settlement and integration services to immigrants. However, nonprofit immigrant-serving organizations frequently deliver these settlement and integration services to immigrants, often in collaboration with government entities (Shields et al., 2016). Nonprofit immigrant-serving organizations contribute significantly to the development of social cohesion within host communities by offering programs that promote cross-cultural understanding and interaction, these organizations create spaces for dialogue and collaboration between immigrants and native residents (Berry, 2009). The promotion of social cohesion is essential because it is required for the creation of harmonious societies where diverse cultural backgrounds are celebrated rather than viewed as sources of division (Berry, 2009). In this context, nonprofit immigrant-serving organizations play a pivotal role in offering a range of services, such as language classes, employment support, and cultural integration programs, to help immigrants adapt to their new environment.

Shields et al., (2016) outline three key stages in the immigrant settlement process. The initial stage, termed “initial reception,” focuses on newcomer orientation, information and referral services, language training, and short-term shelter (Shields et al., 2016., p.6). The “intermediate stage” aims to secure suitable employment, long-term housing, and access to education and social rights. The “final stage” involves the development of a deeper sense of attachment and belonging to the host society (Shields et al., 2016., p.6).

Employment for instance is a fundamental aspect of successful integration for immigrants. Securing a job not only provides financial stability but also helps immigrants feel a sense of belonging and contribution to their new community (Kanas et al., 2011). However, proficiency in at least one official language such as English or French thus depending on the official language of the host country is essential for effective communication, accessing services, building relationships, and pursuing employment opportunities. (Delander et al., 2005). Developing language fluency is, therefore, crucial for immigrants to engage in social interactions, access information, and participate in the labour market (Huot et al., 2021). Nonprofit immigrant-serving organizations offer programs such as language lessons, knitting circles, and other occupational activities to help immigrants develop skills, build social connections, and combat isolation (Huot et al., 2021). Nonprofit immigrant-serving organizations also provide preparatory occupations to build social capital and increase immigrants’ access to networks and spaces in mainstream society. These programs aim to support immigrants in overcoming barriers specific to immigrants and facilitate their participation in various aspects of life (Huot et al., 2021).

Challenges Faced by Nonprofit Immigrant-Serving Organizations

It is important to note the significant challenges that commonly arise among nonprofit immigrant-serving organizations during the diverse phases of the immigrant settlement and integration experience Nonprofit immigrant-serving organizations face challenges in generating enough revenues to meet their objectives, leading to a need to manage labour costs in the context of funding constraints (Shields et al., 2016). Due to financial constraints, these organizations increasingly rely on voluntary contributions to support their operations, with labour from voluntary sources outpacing the growth of the paid labour force (Baines et al., 2014). The nonprofit immigrant-serving organizations also have relatively low union density, with limited protection against employment insecurity, low wages, and poor working conditions compared to other sectors like public and para-public services (Baines et al., 2014). Nonprofit immigrant-serving organizations experience changes in their revenue sources, including gross receipts, earned income, and contributions, in response to shifts in immigrant numbers (Barbenchelon & Keister, 2022). Nevertheless, increased immigration can lead to higher levels of contributions and earned income for nonprofits, reflecting the financial support from immigrant communities (Barbenchon & Keister, 2022).

Moreover, there is also a rejection of nonprofit immigrant organizations engaging in advocacy roles, leading to an “advocacy chill” in the sector (Baines et al., 2014., p.79). The relationship between state funders and nonprofit providers has shifted towards more structured contracts and accountability systems, reducing the autonomy of organizations in program delivery (Baines et al., 2014). However, this notion of advocacy is contested by Mason (2015) who argues that nonprofit immigrant-serving organizations often act as advocates for policies that promote inclusivity and anti-discrimination, fostering a sense of belonging among immigrants. This advocacy work is vital in challenging stereotypes and dispelling misconceptions about immigrants, contributing to a more inclusive society (Mason, 2015). Roth et. al., (2018) share similar sentiments by highlighting the significance of policy advocacy by immigrant-serving organizations to address systemic issues and promoting structural change in their communities. These immigrant-serving organizations engaging in policy advocacy can be done through direct lobbying, coalition building, public education campaigns, and legal advocacy (Roth et. al., 2018).

Engaging in policy advocacy allows immigrant-serving organizations to strategically influence decision-making processes at local, state, and national levels. By participating in advocacy efforts, these organizations can shape policies that better reflect the needs and realities of immigrant populations (Roth et al., 2018). Immigrant-serving organizations often serve as a voice for vulnerable immigrant populations who may face challenges in advocating for themselves. By engaging in policy advocacy, these organizations can amplify the voices of those marginalized within society and advocate for their rights and needs (Roth et al., 2018).

Unfortunately, the advocacy strategies of nonprofit immigrant-serving organizations face challenges such as limited resources, lack of knowledge about policy processes, organizational capacity constraints, fear of displeasing funders, and concerns about legal implications (Roth et. al., 2018). However, Roth et. al., (2018) recommend that nonprofit immigrants’ serving organizations should draw on building strategic partnerships, increasing organizational capacity, and leveraging support from the community. This is because the importance of policy advocacy for immigrant-serving organizations lies in its ability to address systemic issues and drive structural change within their communities (Roth et. al., 2018).

Current systems of accountability are viewed as burdensome on nonprofit immigrant-serving organizations, consuming resources that could be directed towards program outcomes. This focus on businesslike models of accountability and management can limit the flexibility of organizations to tailor services to community needs (Baines et al., 2014). Again, government accountability rules, especially within the framework of neoliberal governance, can have implications for nonprofit immigrant-serving organizations. Neoliberalism emphasizes limited government intervention and promotes market-based approaches to service delivery (Shields et al., 2016). Under this ideology, governments may seek to regulate nonprofit immigrant-serving organizations to ensure alignment with state objectives and priorities in the provision of services to immigrants. Neoliberal ideologies, characterized by individualistic training with an emphasis on personal accountability, shape the approach taken by some immigrant-serving organizations (Shields et al., 2016). This perspective often expects immigrants to overcome barriers in their new countries through self-efforts and working harder, without addressing systemic barriers that hinder immigrants’ settlement and integration process (Thomas, 2015).

The regulatory environment can create challenges for nonprofit immigrant-serving organizations that traditionally operate based on cooperative and shared ethics. Nonprofit sectors are often driven by a mission to serve the community and address social needs collaboratively (Shields et al., 2016). However, when government accountability rules impose specific requirements and outcomes on nonprofit providers to meet state objectives, it can potentially conflict with the intrinsic values of nonprofit immigrant-serving organizations (Shields et al., 2016).

Nonprofit immigrant-serving organizations, therefore, may find themselves torn between fulfilling government-mandated regulations to secure funding and maintaining their core values of community service and collaboration (Shields et al., 2016). Therefore, immigrant-serving organizations may feel pressured to prioritize meeting specific performance metrics and compliance requirements set by funders, potentially at the expense of holistic service delivery or addressing systemic barriers to immigrant settlement and integration. This can shape organizational priorities, decision-making processes, and resource allocation strategies within immigrant-serving organisations (Shields et al., 2016).

Baines et al., (2014) also observe that the accountability system, characterized by strict rules on how funding can be utilized, poses a challenge for nonprofit immigrant-serving organizations in building deeper connections in immigrants’ communities. This is because when funding is narrowly prescribed for direct program costs only, as seen in project funding regimes, organizations have limited flexibility to allocate resources towards activities that foster community engagement and relationship-building beyond immediate service delivery (Baines et al., 2014). As a result, nonprofit immigrant-serving organisations may struggle to invest in initiatives that facilitate meaningful settlement and integration for immigrants, such as organizing community events, conducting outreach programs, or providing additional support services that enhance the overall well-being of immigrants. The focus on meeting specific programmatic targets and deliverables within the constraints of the funding rules can divert attention and resources away from activities that nurture long-term relationships between immigrants and nonprofit immigrant-serving organizations (Baines et al., 2014).

Ultimately, the rigid funding guidelines hinder nonprofit immigrant-serving organizations’ capacity to engage with immigrants holistically and sustainably, potentially limiting the depth and effectiveness of their impact beyond the immediate service provision (Baines et al., 2014). The current systems of accountability within nonprofit immigrant-serving organisations are described as excessively burdensome, consuming substantial human and financial resources while diverting attention from actual program outcomes (Baines et al., 2014). This burden arises from the extensive reporting requirements, monitoring mechanisms, and compliance measures imposed on nonprofit immigrant-serving organizations by funders and regulatory bodies (Baines et al., 2014). The need to adhere to stringent accountability standards often compels these organizations to allocate a significant amount of time and resources to administrative tasks, such as data collection, reporting, and compliance documentation. This administrative burden can be particularly taxing for frontline workers and managers, as it detracts from their ability to focus on delivering direct services and engaging with immigrants effectively (Baines et al., 2014).

Moreover, the emphasis on meeting accountability metrics and fulfilling reporting obligations may shift the organizational focus towards meeting procedural requirements rather than achieving meaningful program outcomes. This shift can lead to a culture where resources are disproportionately allocated to meeting accountability demands, potentially at the expense of innovation, service quality, and responsiveness to immigrants’ needs (Baines et al., 2014). The lack of knowledge on how to provide better support to immigrants, along with policies that correspond with public health and welfare, hinders service provision to immigrants by nonprofit immigrant-serving organizations (Simich et al., 2005).

Sometimes, nonprofit immigrant-serving organizations tend to adjust their expenditures based on the growth or decline of immigrant populations. Therefore, as the immigrant population increases, nonprofit immigrant-serving organizations may need to spend more resources to meet the evolving needs of immigrants, such as providing social services like education, housing aid, and job assistance (Barbenchon1& Keister, 2023). Despite these and many hurdles faced by nonprofit immigrant-serving organisations, their role in immigrants’ settlement and integration process is still prominent and they can navigate their way through these hurdles to provide excellent settlement and integration services to immigrants.

How Nonprofit Immigrants Serving Organizations can Overcome Challenges

Nonprofit immigrants serving organizations can overcome their challenges by implementing strategies that enhance their resilience, efficiency, and capacity to fulfil their missions effectively. Baines et al., (2014) recommend that by reducing reliance on a single funding stream, nonprofit immigrant-serving organizations can mitigate the impact of funding delays and uncertainties. Exploring diverse revenue streams, such as grants and donations can provide financial stability and flexibility to immigrant-serving organizations. It is along this vein that Sheilds et al., (2016) recommend that nonprofit immigrant-serving organizations collaborate with government agencies, other nonprofits, community organizations, and private sector entities to help them leverage resources, expertise, and networks to enhance service delivery. Baines et al., (2014) further suggest the cultivation of open communication and collaborative partnerships with funders to help nonprofit immigrant-serving organizations navigate funding challenges more effectively. Establishing transparent and constructive relationships can lead to better understanding and support during times of financial strain (Baines et al., 2014).

By focusing on achieving positive outcomes and demonstrating the impact of their programs, nonprofit immigrant-serving organizations can showcase their effectiveness in addressing immigrant settlement and integration needs. This can help secure continued funding and support from the government and other stakeholders (Shields et al., 2016). Additionally, despite funding constraints, nonprofit immigrant-serving organizations can prioritize community engagement initiatives that foster meaningful connections with clients and stakeholders. Building trust and relationships within the community can enhance program effectiveness and sustainability (Baines et al., 2014). On the challenge of advocacy, Baines et al., (2014) recommend that immigrant-serving organizations should engage in advocacy efforts to influence policy changes that reduce administrative burdens, increase funding flexibility, and promote a more supportive regulatory environment that can benefit the entire nonprofit sector. Shields et al., (2016) further stress that engaging in advocacy efforts to raise awareness about the importance of immigrant settlement and integration services, advocate for adequate funding, and promote inclusive policies can help nonprofit agencies amplify their impact and influence decision-making at various levels.

On the issue of financial challenge, Baines et al., (2014) recommend the implementation of robust financial management practices, including budget planning, monitoring, and reporting to improve the organization’s financial resilience and sustainability. Efficient financial systems can help nonprofits track expenses, optimize resource allocation, and make informed decisions.

Embracing efficiency measures and innovative practices can also help nonprofit immigrant-serving organizations maximize the impact of their resources and adapt to changing needs within immigrant communities. This may involve streamlining processes, adopting technology solutions, and exploring new service delivery models (Shields et al., 2014). Again, providing training and support for staff members, particularly in areas such as grant writing, financial management, and program evaluation, can enhance their skills and confidence in navigating accountability requirements (Baines et al., 2014). This will, however, require investing in staff training, professional development, and organizational capacity building to enhance the capabilities of nonprofit settlement agencies to meet the evolving needs of immigrants and navigate complex regulatory environments (Sheilds et al., 2014).


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