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Book Review: The Shifting Terrain: Nonprofit Policy Advocacy in Canada

The Shifting Terrain: Nonprofit Policy Advocacy in Canada, Nick J. Mulé and Gloria C. Desantis. eds, Montreal & Kingston, Ontario, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2017, ISBN 978-0-7735-4864-0

At what point did advocacy become a dirty word?

Should charities be governed in accordance with their purposes?

Is the role of government one of regulator, or enabler?

These questions were expressed during a sector meeting to propose new rules on political activities regulation. I was reminded of them while reading The Shifting Terrain: Nonprofit Policy Advocacy in Canada. In this edited collection, both practitioners and academics examine issues central to the concerns articulated at that session through detailed case studies of the non-profit sector’s place in government policymaking. The book has important implications, both now and in the future.

One only need look at recent events to realize that non-profit (in this text encompassing both registered charities and other public-benefit non-profit entities) advocacy in Canada is a continually evolving landscape. The book’s chapters specifically address the various structures and strategies that organizations adopt as they seek to impact government policy in a sometimes-trying climate.

The three opening pieces authored by Peter Elson, editors Gloria C. DeSantis and Nick J. Mulé, and Adam Parachin frame the big picture of non-profit advocacy in Canada from its theoretical, regulatory, and practical standpoints. From here, the emphasis shifts from the national policy environment to a canvassing of Canada’s geographic diversity, with the collection offering case studies that examine practitioner experience across different jurisdictions. Each of these chapters provide useful reading for sector advocates as well as policy studies classes, particularly Parachin’s chapter, which prescribes legal reform measures to address the capacity of registered charities to engage in political activities. At the same time, the authors write with clarity (and without jargon) on the lessons learned in the field, making the chapters readily accessible to a wide audience.

Taken as a whole, the book paints a grim picture of the state of non-profit advocacy in Canada. Its focus is on how organizations have had to alter the ways they approach advocacy due to neoliberal reforms to governance and policymaking. These include a decline in government spending, particularly towards advocacy efforts, and a sustained shift from core to project-based funding; the “decline of interest in or responsibility for structural and systemic causes” to societal problems; and an elevated role of the market in crafting policy solutions that privilege the role of the individual.

Many non-profit organizations have struggled to adapt to these shifting norms and the effect of consequent external constraints and demands has undermined the role they play in political representation. An “advocacy chill” exists thanks to increased government scrutiny and its preference for program-level quantifiable evidence to inform incremental policy tweaks. This is now a substitution for positions that might lead to fundamental strategic shifts. The collection demonstrates how organizations struggling to adapt to an unwelcoming environment are further constrained by moribund regulatory regimes that have not advanced the ability of charities and non-profits to meet these new realities and effect policy change. For instance, shifts from core to project funding put a squeeze on organizations’ advocacy resources. Meanwhile, improvements to regulatory areas that might support organizations in achieving financial independence have been ignored, sidelined, or are otherwise not currently under active consideration.

Capacity issues at non-profit organizations are frequent topics of discussion and academic inquiry, though rarely do we focus on the consequences that an organization’s inability to achieve its mission has on communities. Myrle Ballard’s chapter on the non-profit sector’s muted response to flooding in an Indigenous community in Manitoba sheds light on how communities that might look to the sector for political representation are left voiceless when advocacy organizations are incapacitated.

A central narrative in The Shifting Terrain – and its strength – is the enduring resourcefulness of non-profit organizations that seek policy change in less than enabling environments. For instance, Rachel Laforest and Anna Burrowes present their research on the operating conditions of non-profit advocacy coalitions in the years following Mike Harris’s PC government in Ontario. While the move to coalition-building as a response to regulatory, funding, or reputational constraints is familiar to many, readers will no doubt be surprised to learn that many organizations are opting to relabel (disguise?) their related activities as “educating” policymakers.

Other organizations refuse to compromise. Christa Freiler and Peter Clutterbuck’s examination of the context surrounding Ontario’s Poverty Reduction Strategy reveals that a movement toward bold approaches to social policy change is growing, with actors wise to the power imbalances implied by calls for partnership to deliver government agendas. Poverty alleviation strategies calling for incremental change are being challenged by those opting instead for a social justice approach to poverty eradication as a concrete policy goal.

With respect to regulatory concerns, Parachin’s recommendations for the CRA and Carol Liao’s focus on corporate hybrids in BC stand out in imagining how regulatory changes can ameliorate constraints and help charities and non-profits adapt. Liao’s chapter introduces a rather novel solution for those wanting to pursue advocacy as part of their social mission, especially if they are not wed to doing so within the purview of charitable registration. She argues for legislation to allow for community contribution companies, or C3s: a new type of corporate structure currently implemented in BC. C3s can help organizations pursue for-profit income generating strategies, offering an additional route to obtain funding. The governing features of these hybrids can include restrictions on dividends to shareholders, community purpose asset locks, and special obligations on directors to consider community interests.

The future of hybrid models is uncertain at the federal level, as is the incorporation of this structure more generally within the non-profit sector (there are currently about 35 incorporated C3 organizations in BC). While Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada (formerly Industry Canada) consulted on related changes to the Canada Business Corporations Act, the department has not updated the public on hybrid model legislation since 2015. However, it is plausible that hybrid corporate structures could find their way into the federal government’s Social Finance and Innovation Steering Group Strategy, which is scheduled to be released in June.

The Shifting Terrain also provides concrete guidance on executing effective advocacy strategies. In a rare (for this book) instance of success with an amenable government, Kathleen Thompson and Bonnie Morton dissect Saskatchewan’s income support model for people with disabilities. A helpful literature review on collaborative advocacy accompanies it. This, together with Laforest and Burrowes’ chapter on coalitions in Ontario, provides a well-rounded overview of the goals, processes, potential, and limitations of collaborative advocacy work.

Despite the book’s utility for policy-active non-profit professionals and students alike, at points its editors do not fully realize its ambitious scope. As most of the case studies focus on diverse provincial and territorial jurisdictions, a clear picture of the “the government” in question is often lacking. It would be helpful in situating the analysis. Instead, authors explore the challenges of pursuing change within what is vaguely painted as a generally hostile public policy environment. The success or failure of policy advocacy is heavily, if not almost entirely, dependent on government policy agendas, political will, biases, windows of opportunity, and even differences in regional economies  ̶  these cannot be underestimated as variables in the alchemy of non-profit advocacy.

Those in search of an instructive and nuanced analysis of the strategies employed by non-profit advocates – what works or doesn’t work with government under varying conditions and scenarios – may also leave dissatisfied. As chapter 3 states, “advocacy is about actors.” The detail and richness with which authors explore non-profit strategizing would have fit better alongside a deeper analysis that treated government as a multifaceted and dynamic, rather than uniform, actor. The case studies are so context- and region-specific, and frequently involve multiple jurisdictions of sometimes shifting governance, that the individual analyses are not always in keeping within the broad framing of the concept of “terrain.”

The focus on progressive causes also leads one to ask whether this terrain looks the same to public benefit entities that sit on different parts of the political spectrum (after all, the child fitness tax credit introduced by the Harper Conservatives and phased out under the Trudeau Liberals has its roots in charity advocacy). It is plausible that the breadth of the non-profit sector and the advocacy work undertaken within it hinders a macro-level analysis of what the “terrain” might look like from the perspective of all non-profits, particularly institutions and large groups that may enjoy more resilience in the face of funding constraints.

The current government has spent the first two years of its mandate consulting on policy realms that touch on many of these issues; we might expect, therefore, their remaining two years in office to be marked by action. Whatever the outcome, we can – it is to be hoped – look forward to a second edition of The Shifting Terrain, which would provide necessary reflection on current and anticipated developments.

Illustrated by Paul Dotey


Bernadette Johnson is Imagine Canada’s Manager of Public Policy. She has an MA in Conflict Studies and a Master of Philanthropy and Nonprofit Leadership.