Canadian Foundations Explore Philanthropy’s Role in Public Policy

SUMMARY: The newly elected Liberal Party’s platform declaring the end of political harassment and a modernization of the rules governing the nonprofit sector was a key topic at the Philanthropic Foundations of Canada (PFC) symposium in late October 2015. Among the questions discussed were: Should foundations and corporate funders participate in discussions about public policy? What are the rules? What are some of the creative tensions involved in working across sectors, given different expectations about timelines, risk, and accountability? Can smaller foundations work together to share their creative strategies in these areas? And, how do we measure the impact of our work, even if we are not looking specifically for policy change? The Philanthropist’s community engagement consultant Jillian Witt covered the conference and reports on these discussions as well as highlights from guest speakers.

RÉSUMÉ : La plateforme du Parti libéral nouvellement élu, qui annonce la fin du harcèlement politique ainsi qu’une modernisation des règles régissant le secteur sans but lucratif, a été un thème clé du colloque de Fondations philanthropiques Canada (FPC), à la fin octobre 2015, où l’on a notamment discuté des questions suivantes : Est-ce que les fondations et les entreprises donatrices doivent participer aux discussions concernant les politiques gouvernementales? Quelles sont les règles? Peut-on citer certaines tensions créatives qui surgissent lors du travail intersectoriel, compte tenu des attentes différentes en ce qui a trait aux échéanciers, aux risques et à la responsabilité? Est-ce que de plus petites fondations peuvent collaborer en partageant leurs stratégies créatives à ce chapitre? Et comment pouvons-nous mesurer l’impact de notre travail, même si nous n’attendons pas expressément un changement au niveau des politiques? La consultante en engagement communautaire de The Philanthropist, Jillian Witt, a présenté la conférence et les rapports portant sur ces discussions, et souligné les points saillants des interventions des conférenciers invités.

The newly elected Liberal Party’s platform declaring the end of political harassment and a modernization of the rules governing the nonprofit sector was a popular discussion topic at the Philanthropic Foundations of Canada (PFC) symposium this fall. More than 150 philanthropic leaders came together in Toronto a week after the October 19th federal election to tackle how the philanthropic sector can work with governments at all levels. Here are key questions posed at the symposium, with highlights from guest speakers.

Should foundations and corporate funders participate in discussions about public policy? What are the rules?

There was resounding support among participants for the sector’s participation in public policy. In fact, several people insisted that foundations have a moral imperative to do so, for reasons including:

  • The philanthropic sector has important knowledge and insight.
  • Voices within the sector are independent; unlike the public and private sectors, the nonprofit sector represents public interests rather than commercial or political ones.
  • In a time of an “advocacy chill” when charities are cautious to participate, foundations must step up.
  • Most importantly, public policy is integral to creating the long-term social change the sector seeks.

Speakers agreed that the timing is right, too. The new government’s platform acknowledged the value of the nonprofit sector and its commitment to reform. Amidst general optimism about the election results, there was also a recognition that the sector must ensure these commitments are kept.

Roger Gibbins of Max Bell Foundation warned that we are at risk of being regulated out of public policy discussions. He suggested that we need to “create a parade” that is coordinated and clear about what we want our role to be in public policy. Otherwise, he said, advocacy restraints could have us bringing “butter knives to a gunfight.”

Alex Himelfarb of both World Wildlife Federation and Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness agreed that this is not the moment for complacency. If the role of civil society is building democracy, then we need to maintain the sector’s independence of voice, independence of action, and ability to innovate to ensure we enhance the quality of democracy.

Matthew Mendelson of Mowat Centre said the nonprofit sector can build capacity to represent itself and self-advocate so that government will instinctively include it when creating public policy.

Participants debated the best approach to engage a broad audience in the sector’s issues. Some suggested that we should emphasize how the sector improves society as a whole in order to appeal to the middle-class rhetoric commonly used to win public favour. Others suggested that the sector’s responsibility is to increase the public’s attention to those most marginalized. Participants also weighed the risks of professionalizing organizing tactics, including that it may detract from valuable community-based organizing and activist approaches to policy change.

Despite enthusiasm over the new political climate, Adam Parachin, Associate Professor in the University of Western Ontario’s Faculty of Law, and other speakers underscored how advocacy guidelines remain confusing and at times contradictory. For example, it is charitable to educate about a point of view, but it is political to promote that same point of view. Parachin advised participants to understand how the law distinguishes charity from politics in order to advocate legally and effectively.

What are some of the creative tensions involved in working across sectors, given different expectations about timelines, risk, and accountability?

Throughout the conference, speakers shared examples of how they are tackling the creative tensions in cross-sectoral work. For example:

Stephen Huddart of the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation described how a Social Innovation Lab approach is successfully bringing multiple stakeholders to the table, including Aboriginal communities and various government players, to support the Winnipeg Boldness Project for Aboriginal early child development. The Lab approach brings partners from different organizations together to co-create solutions and test their ideas rather than simply advance the agenda of any individual organization.

Shelley Uytterhagen and Karen Wilkie shared Carthy Foundation’s experience in, and rationale for, directly funding government to support youth mental health. They facilitated a candid conversation on the philosophical choice to fund government directly rather than a charitable organization, including both the unique opportunities and challenges.

Colette Murphy of the Atkinson Foundation described a holistic approach to policy work. Murphy explained that social justice philanthropy is never about one issue, strategy, tactic, or level of government, nor a single advocate. It’s a collaborative jigsaw puzzle, she said, rather than a zero-sum chess game. Murphy shared some of the questions the Atkinson Foundation grapples with in their work including, “Who is included or excluded from the policy development process?” and “When is it okay to speak on others behalf?”

Can smaller foundations work together to share their creative strategies in these areas?

Participants learned about several collaborations that are already happening involving foundations of all sizes.

The Early Childhood Funders Working Group (ECD-FWG), a group of foundations of different sizes, recently engaged in their first collective advocacy initiative. In June, Working Group members wrote an open letter urging Canada’s politicians to recognize the importance of quality early childhood education. Group members have regional, provincial, or national mandates, and the experience helped members learn about one another, communicate across organizations, and recognize the potential of future work together, possibly with additional partners. Several members shared the inherent challenges of collaboration, included defining success, keeping momentum, building consensus around approach, and agreeing on language. They also shared valuable lessons from the process, such as the importance of designating spokespeople, investing in relationships, building trust, and using a professional editor to ease the process when organizations co-write documents.

How do we measure the impact of our work, even if we are not looking specifically for policy change?

Given the long-term and interactive nature of policy change, measuring the impact of advocacy requires different approaches to evaluation.

Tanya Beer of Center for Evaluation Innovation and David Elton of Max Bell Foundation agreed that the complexity of advocacy and public policy work requires different grant-making practices. Beer advised participants to focus on interim outcomes and progress rather than policy change in evaluation strategies. As Beer explained, most evaluation strategies come from a program delivery mindset, whereas an intervention can be linked to a specific outcome. In the case of advocacy work, changing contexts and opportunities require adaptable and nimble approaches and the evaluation strategy must reflect this. Beer encouraged funders to use realistic indicators for a given advocacy strategy.

The conference ended with optimism and participants widely agreeing that there is opportunity for the sector in the new political climate. In the closing plenary on the interplay between media and public opinion, Delyse Sylvester of The Natural Step Canada suggested it is “time to be big enough.” The philanthropic sector can help shape what the public sees as real, acceptable, and possible, she said, and we must work together to be noticed consistently and coherently across channels, to influence both public and politicians’ understanding of the issues affecting civil society.

The Philanthropic Foundations of Canada (PFC) held its symposium in Toronto, ON, October 27-28, 2015

Jillian Witt is Community Engagement Consultant for The Philanthropist.