Charities, Public Policy and Advocacy – Take # 2

Dear Prime Minister Trudeau,

Congratulations on your recent election.

Like many who work and volunteer with the tens of thousands of Canadian charities operating across the country and around the world, I was delighted to see the charity related promises contained in the Liberal party’s platform. Your government has committed to ending the “political harassment” of charities. And, it has committed to clarifying and affirming the key role that charities play in public policy development and advocacy.

Your party’s platform contained a broad and ambitious set of other commitments, many of which are likely to be of a more immediate priority to your government. The good news with respect to your promise regarding charities, however, is that your government doesn’t have to start from scratch; far from it. There exist a number of reports and resources about advocacy and related issues concerning charities that will better enable your government to honour this particular platform commitment.

Ironically, it is the Canada Revenue Agency that has provided a clear rationale for the public policy involvement of charities. The preamble to CRA’s existing policy statement on political activities reads as follows:

“Through their dedicated delivery of essential programs, many charities have acquired a wealth of knowledge about how government policies affect people’s lives. Charities are well placed to study, assess, and comment on those government policies. Beyond service delivery, their expertise is also a vital source of information for governments to help guide policy decisions. It is therefore essential that charities continue to offer their direct knowledge of social issues to public policy debates.”

A myriad of other resources make a similar case, including the 1999 report, Building on Strength: Improving Governance and Accountability in the Voluntary Sector – more commonly known as the Broadbent report.

That report was the product of a six-person, independent panel chaired by former NDP leader Ed Broadbent and was commissioned by a coalition of national, charitable organizations. Other panel members included the late Arthur Kroeger, considered the Dean of the federal civil service, and Monique Vézina, a former Minister of External Relations in the Mulroney government. The Broadbent report contained a number of thoughtful recommendations including those related to the charitable sector’s role in government policy making.

Shortly after the release of the Broadbent report, the administration of Jean Chrétien announced the creation of the Voluntary Sector Initiative (VSI). Operating between 2000 -2005, the VSI was a unique collaboration between the Government of Canada and the charitable and voluntary sector. That ambitious initiative resulted in a number of tools and resources specifically intended to strengthen the government-charitable sector relationship. Regrettably, the work of the VSI was completed ignored by the government of Stephen Harper, and any reference to the initiative was deleted from federal departmental websites in the months following his election.

Fortunately, the work undertaken jointly by senior federal officials and charitable sector leaders during the VSI is readily available. Three reports are of particular relevance.

In December 2001, at a public ceremony in the Railway Committee Room of Centre Block, Prime Minister Chrétien affixed his signature to An Accord Between the Government of Canada and the Voluntary Sector. That document was the product of a working group of senior federal and charitable sector officials. As the Prime Minster wrote in the preface, “I believe this Accord is the blueprint for a strong and vibrant relationship between the voluntary sector and the Government of Canada. As such, it will show us how we can continue to work together to build a better country.”

A variety of more detailed, companion documents were jointly developed to complement the values and principles contained in the Accord.

For example, A Code of Good Practice on Funding was intended to guide interactions between the Government of Canada and the charitable sector on funding policies and practices. Of particular relevance to your platform commitment, A Code of Good Practice on Policy Dialogue, was developed specifically to serve as “a tool for deepening the dialogue between the Government of Canada and the voluntary sector at the various stages of the public policy process in order to achieve better policies for Canadians.”

Running in parallel to, but separate from the VSI, the Charities and Democracy project was a joint initiative of the Institute for Media, Policy and Civil Society (IMPACS) and the Canadian Centre for Philanthropy (a predecessor of Imagine Canada).

The initiative entailed approximately 60 consultations with more than 2,300 organizations and individuals across the country. It was intended both to educate voluntary sector workers and volunteers about the law of advocacy by charitable organizations and empower charities to participate in public policy development and debate.

Although IMPACS is now defunct, several resources developed for use during the Charities and Democracy project are easily accessible. These include Charities: Enhancing Democracy in Canada and The Law of Advocacy by Charitable Organizations – Options for Change.

In closing, thank you, again, for your government’s recognition of the valuable contribution which charitable organizations have already made to good public policy. The documents cited above will be useful to your Ministers and officials as they seek to further clarify and strengthen the engagement of charities in public policy development and advocacy. Many of us will be monitoring your government’s progress in implementing these platform commitments with great interest.


Patrick Johnston


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