Charities have a moral obligation to help develop public policy

SUMMARY: The election of the Trudeau Liberals follows several years of tension between the federal government and a sizeable group of Canadian charities, and flags an opportunity for the charitable, non-profit sector. Max Bell Foundation’s Senior Fellow Roger Gibbins has been examining the roles charities play in delivery of social programs and policy initiatives of governments, and to develop the case that – because of those roles – charities have a moral obligation to engage in public policy development. In The Moral Imperative for Policy Advocacy, the first of three articles to be published over the next several months, he develops this case and points out the benefits to both the policy process and to the charities that participate.

RÉSUMÉ : L’élection du Parti libéral de Justin Trudeau suit plusieurs années de tension entre le gouvernement fédéral et un nombre important d’organismes de bienfaisance canadiens, et envoie un signal positif au secteur caritatif et sans but lucratif. Roger Gibbins, « Senior Fellow » de la Max Bell Foundation, s’est penché sur le rôle des organismes de bienfaisance dans la prestation des programmes sociaux et les initiatives stratégiques des gouvernements, et a développé un argumentaire selon lequel, en vertu de leur rôle, les organismes de bienfaisance ont une obligation morale de contribuer à l’élaboration des politiques publiques. Dans l’article « The Moral Imperative for Policy Advocacy » [L’impératif moral d’influencer les politiques »] (premier d’une série de trois articles qui s’échelonnera sur quelques mois), il développe son argumentaire et souligne les avantages qu’en retireraient le processus politique et les organismes de bienfaisance participants.

Allow charities to do their work on behalf of Canadians free from political harassment, and modernize the rules governing the charitable and not-for-profit sectors, working with the Minister of Finance. This will include clarifying the rules governing “political activity,” with an understanding that charities make an important contribution to public debate and public policy. A new legislative framework to strengthen the sector will emerge from this process.

Excerpt from Mandate Letter to Diane Lebouthillier, Minister of National Revenue, November 13, 2015

 2016 has the potential to be a watershed year for the many Canadian charities whose work places them at the blurred boundary between government and civil society. As Joanne Cave (2016) recently noted on this website, in 2015 Canadians elected a federal government that has given public policy advocacy by charities a place of prominence on its agenda. During their campaign, and in a number of key mandate letters (including the one cited above), the federal Liberals signaled their intention to thaw the “advocacy chill” in the sector by clarifying the regulation of “political activity” and developing a new legislative framework to strengthen the sector. Perhaps more to the point, the newly elected federal government has staked out an ambitious agenda, large portions of which will require support from a broad range of Canadian charities and nonprofits in order to succeed.

This follows several years of tension between the federal government and a sizeable group of Canadian charities, animated by the 2012 Budget provision of new money (some $8 million, later increased to $13.4 million) to audit the “political activities” of charities (Floyd, 2015).

The new government’s intentions were underscored by Minister Lebouthilier’s January 20 announcement that CRA will wind down the political activities project, and not proceed with audits of the final six of 60 charities it had selected.

Despite an “advocacy chill,” many Canadian charities have continued to engage in successful public policy advocacy. The new government’s agenda and tone is doubtless partly a response to such advocacy. At the provincial level too – as Joanne Cave’s review also points out – many charities have continued to play critical roles in public policy development on a wide range of files. Environmental NGOs in particular should recognize their collective achievements in making climate change a central priority for governments in 2015 and beyond.

This is all good news. But it’s news that flags an opportunity rather than marking a success. While the federal government’s intentions to facilitate public policy engagement by charities are all to the positive, its ability to deliver on those intentions will be challenged. It has a full agenda of other complex issues that will compete for time and attention. And all of its plans will face fiscal headwinds as the economy limps into a year forecast to be fraught with obstacles.

Further challenges await among Canada’s charities themselves. In the past year, leaders within several of the sector’s largest umbrella organizations have been working together to coordinate their public policy advocacy. They are focused on the opportunity to be full and effective partners in the policy developments pertaining to charities promised by the federal government. As yet, however, it remains an open question whether they can – on behalf of all charities and civil society more broadly – secure the support they’ll need to do it. Considerable hard work analyzing options, consulting, coordinating, and communicating will be necessary, all of which will place demands on the scarce time and resources of sector umbrella organizations.

But there are reasons to be optimistic. As Patrick Johnston (2015) recently pointed out on this site, we’re not starting from scratch. We have a base of knowledge and a solid history of working together as a sector to engage government in setting the terms by which we contribute to public policy development.

There is greater interest and engagement in public policy advocacy across the charitable sector today than at any time I can recall in my 20 some years in the sector. More organizations are including policy advocacy alongside service delivery in pursuit of their missions. More funders are leading or supporting public policy innovation.

And there is a specific opportunity being launched today by The Philanthropist. Over the next six or seven months, this journal will publish three articles by Dr. Roger Gibbins. The articles will inform engagement by Canadian charities in the opportunity presented by the new federal government’s interest in facilitating public policy advocacy. Further, the newly updated online presence of The Philanthropist means the articles will be a platform for a virtual conversation about the issues raised.

Since October 2014, Dr. Gibbins has been the Max Bell Foundation Senior Fellow. His project has been to examine the roles charities play in delivery of social programs and policy initiatives of governments, and to develop the case that – because of those roles – charities have a moral obligation to engage in public policy development.

The first of Roger’s articles, being published today, develops the case that charities have a moral obligation to participate in the development of public policy.

The second article will appear in March 2016. It will detail a handful of alternative strategies (and their respective rationales) Canadian charities could argue for in their collective efforts to be full and effective partners in the development of the “new legislative framework” referred to in the Minister of National Revenue’s mandate letter.

The second article and the virtual conversations it sparks will form the key background document for a consultation being hosted by Max Bell Foundation and Muttart Foundation in Calgary in May, 2016. The consultation will convene approximately 100 individuals from the Canadian charitable sector. It will provide an opportunity for deeper examination and debate, in person, of the strategies contemplated in Roger’s second article.

The third article, to be published in June 2016, will report on the results of the May 2016 consultation, so that those who are unable to attend in person can be updated. Moreover, it will serve as a record of the collective thinking stimulated by Roger’s project.

On behalf of the many who have already contributed to this initiative, we urge you to read, think, and engage, because we believe this work will make an important and substantial difference to how Canadian charities are able to contribute to better public policy in Canada in the years ahead. And that will be good for all Canadians.


Cave, J. (2016). A shifting sector: emerging trends for Canada’s nonprofits in 2016. The Philanthropist. January 4, 2016. https://thephilanthropist.ca/2016/01/a-shifting-sector-emerging-trends-for-canadas-nonprofits-in-2016/

Floyd, G. (2015). A chilly time for charities: Audits, politics and preventing poverty. The Philanthropist. July 20, 2015. https://thephilanthropist.ca/2015/07/a-chilly-time-for-charities-audits-politics-and-preventing-poverty/

Johnston, P. (2015). Charities, public policy and advocacy – Take # 2. The Philanthropist. November 23, 2015. https://thephilanthropist.ca/2015/11/charities-public-policy-and-advocacy-take-2/


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