The Moral Imperative for Policy Advocacy, Part 3: Reflections on the Consultations

SUMMARY: This article is the third and final in a series by Dr. Roger Gibbins published in The Philanthropist on the topic of advocacy by charities on public policy issues. This article summarizes the outcomes of a conference held in Calgary in the spring of 2016 to explore and test propositions which had been previously developed by Gibbins in a paper entitled Call to Arms: Policy Advocacy and Canadian Charities.

RÉSUMÉ: Cet article est le dernier d’une série de trois articles du Dr Roger Gibbins publiés dans The Philanthropist au sujet des stratégies employées par les organismes de bienfaisance en vue d’influencer les politiques. On y trouve un résumé des résultats d’un congrès tenu à Calgary au printemps 2016 pour explorer et vérifier des propositions déjà présentées par le Dr Gibbins dans le document « Call to Arms : Policy Advocacy and Canadian Charities ».

In late 2014 I embarked on an intellectual Odyssey — well, to be truthful, more of an interesting and enjoyable road trip — to explore constraints on policy advocacy within the charitable sector in Canada. Political activity audits and the perceived advocacy “chill” in the late years of the federal government under Stephen Harper provided my point of departure, with financial and intellectual support coming from Max Bell Foundation where I served as a Senior Fellow throughout 2015 and the early part of 2016. The overall project goals were to build a moral case for policy advocacy, to identify constraints, and to recommend how those constraints might be mitigated. The detailed argument was laid out in Call to Arms: Policy Advocacy and Canadian Charities (Max Bell Foundation, 2016) and two previous articles in The Philanthropist.

Luckily, this journey intersected with a related storyline that emerged with the 2015 election of the federal government under Justin Trudeau. The central theme of this second and political storyline, at least for my analysis, came from the Trudeau’s campaign promise to clarify  “the existing rules to clearly affirm and support the important role that charities can and should play in developing and advocating for public policy in Canada.” The Prime Minister then went further in his mandate letter to the new Minister of National Revenue in which he called for Minister Lebouthillier to “modernize the rules governing the charitable and not-for-profit sectors” and to clarify the rules governing “political activity,” stating that “a new legislative framework to strengthen the sector will emerge from this process.” In a rhetorical nutshell, this campaign commitment and its reiteration in the mandate letter captured the core of what many leaders in the charities sector have long been seeking.

These two storylines came together at a May 2016 conference in Calgary hosted by Max Bell  and Muttart Foundations.[1] The conference was designed to test the sector’s enthusiasm for the reform arguments made in Call to Arms, and to determine if those arguments provided the appropriate and sufficient feedstock for the policy debate ignited by the new government. Did the case for less constrained policy advocacy by charities make sense; and was the timing right to pursue the case in Ottawa? If the Trudeau government had in fact thrown open the door for a new relationship (something that I believe) then, is the sector ready, able and willing to walk through that door?

The Calgary conference provided a field test for the case advanced in Call to Arms and, by and large, the case passed. The core argument that charities have a moral imperative to be involved in policy advocacy certainly prevailed at the Calgary conference where speakers and the Call to Arms backgrounder were clearly talking to the converted.  Advocacy was accepted, almost celebrated as part and parcel of the charitable mission, as being what charities are all about. Conference participants implicitly accepted that case advanced in Call to Arms which holds that the values and experiences of charities can make a unique and important contribution to the policy process.

The challenge facing conference participants was how to bring this consensus into play in the context of  Prime Minister Trudeau’s mandate letter. If the reform doors had indeed been flung open, as participants seemed to accept, then what should be the sector’s next step? Here participants were faced with three basic options.

  • The first option would be to let sleeping charitable dogs lie, in effect to thank the Prime Minister for his interest while avoiding the risk of precipitous change to a delicate relationship. Now that the perceived threat of political activity audits had been abolished, the sector could bask in the “sunny ways” of the new government. The sleeping dogs approach would also acknowledge that the great majority of charities are not involved in the development of public policy, and have little interest in becoming so. The sector, therefore, would not be embarking on a reform crusade with limited appeal to its 86,000 foot soldiers.
  • The second option would be to pursue modest, incremental change to strengthen the advocacy contribution of charities within existing legal and institutional parameters, including greater regulatory certainty about what constitutes political activity. The focus would be on clarifying rather than changing the rules of the game, transforming the CRA into a more congenial, perhaps even affectionate bedfellow.
  • The third option would be to “go for gold,” seizing the “Trudeau opportunity” to recast the legal and institutional environment within which Canadian charities pursue policy advocacy. This could include the removal of regulatory oversight from the CRA, a reform for which there was little enthusiasm, a statutory definition of charity, and/or a parliamentary declaration on the contribution of charities to Canadian public life, for which there was much greater enthusiasm and near consensual support.

My reading of the conference was that the initial enthusiasm of many participants for the sleeping dogs approach quickly gave way to the more fervent advocacy of change. A general consensus emerged that the regulatory confusion surrounding political activities, policy advocacy and political purposes could best be resolved through legislative change.[2] Here the panel presentation by Carl Juneau, who brought “street cred” to the event through his career with as the Charities Division in CRA, played a catalytic role in moving participants from a “clarify the rules” position to a “change the rules” position, including updates to the Income Tax Act.

In short, participants generally agreed that the opportunity created by the new Prime Minister and his government should be seized. Certainly, I would argue that if the argument made in Call to Arms is convincing, there is no choice but to embrace the opportunity provided by the Liberal win, and to go for gold. Justin Trudeau’s government has opened the door to a new relationship between charities and the government of Canada, and it would be a missed opportunity, a once in a generation opportunity, if charities fail to walk through the open door.

Conferences that come to such a clear consensus are unusual, at least in my experience. At the same time, this very consensus brought difficult challenges to the fore. First, it is not immediately clear who should or could carry the policy ball forward; who should lead; who can most effectively polish the reform case and rally the charitable troops. There is still some heavy sledding to come.

Second, it is clear that the charitable leaders who gathered in Calgary were not fully representative of the sector — the francophone civil society, Aboriginal organizations and non-charitable non-profits were absent. Nevertheless, many of the conference participants had been part of the reform discussion for years, even generations. This was a gathering of battle-hardened and battle-scarred veterans, and it is not surprising that 97 per cent agreed that “charities should be more involved in public policy advocacy.” It remains to be seen, however, how well the conference consensus will take hold with a broader constituency.

Third, and by no means least, the Trudeau government’s enthusiasm for this policy file may be more tepid than we in the sector had first hoped. The new government’s vast agenda is proving to be more difficult to pursue than anticipated, with electoral reform, legalization of marijuana, pipeline decisions and CF-18 replacement as only a few examples of increasingly difficult policy files. The government has set itself a huge and complex agenda, and charities will have to struggle for space on that agenda. In the morning after the night before, it is recognized that not all promises made in the hustle and bustle of an election campaign can or even should be kept.

There is a lot to do, and it is not clear whether the sector has the political will or muscle to ensure that the commitment to charities remains on the government’s first-term agenda. That said, it is highly unlikely that the government will act in the absence of sustained pressure from the sector; there are lots of other fish for the government to fry and its campaign commitment to charities reform may well lapse into the “would be nice but . . . “ limbo, something to be put off until the next campaign. Given that the public case for modernizing the role of charities with respect to policy advocacy has not been made, and that the sector itself is a long way from agreeing on the need for and nature of reform, a sensible approach by a government pressed on so many fronts would be to say, “Come back in a decade when you have your act together.”

However, there is an opportunity here as it is possible that the case for charities reform may nicely intersect with the federal government’s Senate reform initiative. Charities reform such as that envisioned by the Calgary conference participants could provide an opportunity for the Senate to flex its long-atrophied legislative muscles and, perhaps, to exercise its new-found independence. The issue is not innately partisan or ideological, and certainly party lines have not been established. The more tempered partisanship of the new Senate could appeal to charity leaders testifying on behalf of the sector. There is a pressing need for extensive consultations with the sector, particularly with the vast, non-politicized parts of the sector, and this is something that Senate Committee hearings could provide. Senate hearings could solve the problem that “we” face, and that is how to take the advocacy argument to the broader charities community, and to elements of that community that were largely absent from the Calgary gathering.

Charities reform is an issue that requires not only sober second thought but equally sober first and third thought. And, there is no rush. So, perhaps this is a juicy policy bone that the Trudeau government could throw to the Senate. Doing so would reduce the legislative load for the House of Commons, and it is an issue for which the Senate is particularly well-suited, better suited than the inherently more partisan House.

So, what is the bottom line to emerge from the Calgary conference? First, the case for more vigorous and less constrained policy advocacy by Canadian charities has been made, and largely accepted. While the case could still be consolidated and polished, the heavy lifting has been done. Second, the sector’s leadership needs to a draft an initial legislative amendment, the bone upon which the Senate and ultimately the House could chew. Third, it is essential to find a Senate sponsor, and suggest to the government and responsible ministers that the Senate provides a better initial forum than does the Commons. Fourth, the sector needs to participate vigorously in the Senate hearings, and in the Commons debate that would follow. Fifth, sector leaders have to promote a reasonable sense of urgency as the reform opportunity could disappear.

All of this is not exactly easy, but still is a strategy that requires only a manageable draw on sector resources and leadership. It is doable, and it would allow the sector to walk through the open door the federal government created, but a door that will not be open indefinitely.

If charities do not seize this opportunity, they will be outflanked more and more by other policy players ranging from partisan think tanks to angry blogs fired off at 1:00 in the morning, fuelled by too much alcohol and too little sleep. There is a serious risk that what has been called the “tethered advocacy” of charities will be lost in the din. At issue is how can charities play effectively in the expanding but increasingly crowded and unruly advocacy space? How do charities continue to provide thought leadership in such an environment?

The foundations of Canadian charity law were put into place at a time when social media consisted of hand-written submissions by distinguished gentlemen to The Times of London and The Globe and Mail. The world has moved on, and if our understanding does not also evolve, charities will be outflanked by other nonprofit and private organizations, and by policy activists in the social media. “Thought leadership” is vigorously contested by hundreds, thousands of competitors and it is not clear that charities are well equipped.

What we know for certain is that the political world is not holding its breath, waiting for charities to be back. If we remain on the bench for the political game, our absence will not be lamented; it may not even be noticed. In terms of thought leadership, no one is likely to step aside, saying “Thank God, the charities are here!” The world will go on quite nicely without our engagement. If we want to be heard, we will have to do the shouting.

This leads me to a final point. There is a risk that the reform discussion will be too self-centred, focussed too much on what we, the charitable sector, needs. But why should Canadians and their political representatives care? What is the public interest? If we cannot identify and communicate the public interest, the door to a new relationship should close.


Gibbins, R. Call to Arms: Policy Advocacy and Canadian Charities. Calgary: Max Bell Foundation, 2016.


[1] Max Bell Foundation, “Call to Arms: A Consultation on the Future of Policy Advocacy by Charities in Canada.” Calgary, May 10-11, 2016.

[2] Here it should be stressed that both the conference and Call to Arms focussed on policy advocacy, which is part but not the entirety of political activities by charities.


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