Letter From the Editors: Good Public Policy in Canada

From time to time, the Editors of The Philanthropist reflect on the themes featured in the Journal and summarize and affirm the sector’s collective work on important issues. 

Recent writing in The Philanthropist has focused on the role and limits of the charitable sector in the furtherance of good public policy in Canada. These discussions have used “policy advocacy” as an omnibus term to identify this issue. Although policy advocacy might include some initiatives that the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) would define as “political activity,” policy advocacy can consist entirely of activities that CRA would deem to be “charitable.”

There are many tools and tactics available to advocate effectively for good public policy. Only some of these methods qualify as “political activity” as defined by CRA. One of the concerns raised in these discussions is that charities may not properly distinguish between advocating for good public policy and “political activity.” As Roger Gibbins has pointed out, when it comes to distinguishing policy advocacy from “political activity,” “there is broad public ignorance as well as broad misunderstanding with the charitable sector itself.” This distinction needs to be addressed in any discussions intended to ensure that the charitable sector can fulfill its role.

The underlying belief in these discussions is that the charitable sector has an obligation and critical role in monitoring, informing and critiquing the public policy debate which affects the lives of Canadians – Roger Gibbins has challenged the sector to understand this as the sector’s “moral imperative.”

In this context, the Philanthropist has an opportunity to work in partnership with Max Bell Foundation and Maytree. These two leading charitable organizations are committed to educating the sector about its critical role in the development of public policy, and the critical role of the charitable sector in animating this discussion by putting forward policy options and solutions. These organizations are leading by example.

Maytree’s writing allows our readers to understand the importance of the broader issue of public policy through the specific challenge of poverty, and to understand the imperative of taking a rights-based approach. Maytree argues that poverty is systemic; and because poverty is created by systems, it can be dismantled.

Writers in The Philanthropist have reminded our readers that the work of the sector is rooted in the constitution, in commitments to international declarations and in the concept of human rights. The question is not the validity of the sector’s purpose, but the challenge of clarifying the rules to achieve that purpose.

Following last fall’s election of a federal government that has expressed an openness to discuss these types of issues on these levels, the charitable sector is assessing its options with respect to the issue of policy advocacy.

In an upcoming event hosted by the Max Bell Foundation and the Muttart Foundation, participants from the sector will address the broader question of policy advocacy and attempt to assess the costs and benefits of the sector pursuing a course of either clarifying the regulation (a modest approach) or a full blown review and rewrite of legislation.

Our contributors have identified both the complexities and the opportunities associated with changing the rules around policy advocacy; and Maytree’s writing reinforces the importance of the sector’s full engagement in addressing societal ills such as poverty.

As Editors we believe that the sector needs to strive for clarity and a shared understanding of what we can do to inform and shape debate and development of public policy that achieves public good through a process that is rooted in the lived experience of our communities.

We encourage readers to contribute to this important conversation and share with colleagues – this includes participating in the Max Bell Foundation survey available here (survey is now closed).

The Philanthropist will continue to provide a forum to explore the ways through which these goals can be met. Charities need to be thoughtful leaders on the public stage and to make an informed contribution to public life and, more specifically, to Canada’s public policy environment.

Gordon, Malcolm & Susan

The Editors

Malcolm Burrows is Head, Philanthropic Advisory Services, Scotia Wealth Management, and co-editor of The Philanthropist.

Susan Manwaring is a Partner at Miller Thomson LLP and the National Lead of the Social Impact Group - Experts in Charities and Not for Profit Law. She is co-editor of The Philanthropist.

Gordon Floyd is co-editor of The Philanthropist, and Board President of the National Alliance for Children and Youth, ‎among other volunteer roles. He has been CEO of Children's Mental Health Ontario and interim CEO of the Canadian Centre for Philanthropy.