When Karen Ball stepped in as head of the Calgary Chamber of Voluntary Organizations (CCVO) last summer, she arrived bearing what might be described as a brimming advocacy tool box: years of experience running a consultancy whose clients included both provincial bureaucrats and elected officials, a keen sense of timing and leverage, and a love of politics.
In short order, Ball and her team rolled out a multi-pronged strategy, beginning with the release of a policy paper scoping out the sector’s future, followed, over the next several months, by a public opinion poll, focus groups, and a pre-budget submission laying out several key asks. The most salient: that a $350-million chunk of the Conservative government’s proposed recovery fund go into what CCVO describes as a “community prosperity strategy.” “A win for us would be to see a bucket called ‘social infrastructure’ with money in it,” she says.
Ball, however, knew that the CCVO, at this fraught but opportunity-filled juncture, couldn’t rely only on policy arguments, no matter how compelling and public-spirited. They also needed to take some chances. So for the first time, the organization hired a government relations firm and a strategic communications consultant to add some heft behind the scenes. The GR advisor, in fact, is New West Public Affairs, run by Premier Jason Kenney’s long-time federal cabinet colleague Monte Solberg.
“We have been referring to this as ‘the big swing,’” Ball says. “It’s more ambitious and bold than anything we’ve ever done. We’re doing the whole buffet.”
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Ball certainly isn’t the only provincial network official who has decided to aim for the bleachers, reasoning that the pandemic posed a now-or-never opportunity to press government for a new relationship that goes well beyond the old dance of grants and transfer agreements. But she also knows that others in her position have struck out. The sector’s national advocacy umbrella group, Imagine Canada, has mostly failed to persuade the federal Liberals to establish a stabilization fund to help non-profits navigate a period of drastic revenue fluctuations, increased demand for services, severe health risks facing front-line workers employed by social service agencies – and all this set against a backdrop of rising insolvencies and shotgun mergers.
While the April federal budget allocated $400 million to a Community Services Recovery Fund as well as other emergency relief dollars targeted also at small businesses, the amounts fall short of what sector leaders say is needed to ensure the survival of thousands of small charitable and non-profit organizations.
Money hasn’t been the only ask, moreover. The Senate’s 2019 report on the state of Canada’s charities included a wide range of recommended fixes, and both Imagine Canada and the members of a federal advisory body have been pushing for long-overdue changes to the tax code, better data collection, and a more formalized relationship with sector representatives. (Ottawa’s response, released in late March, proposed Employment and Social Development Canada as the department that should serve as a “single window” point of contact.)
Although sector leaders have focused intensively on the federal stage, different and regionally varied narratives have been playing out within provincial advocacy networks like CCVO. Some have adopted more tactical approaches to pressing their case, while others grapple to find their way after debilitating funding cuts or changes in government priorities.
While provincial non-profit advocacy networks and Imagine Canada face similar challenges – how to properly represent the exceptionally diverse world of non-profit organizations, where to find resources, and what to ask for – the provincial networks have closer ties to local organizations and can better focus on the level of government that tends to fund most social and cultural services.
In a curious twist, some, but definitely not all, of the provincial non-profit networks have had more success than Imagine Canada in recent years in advancing sector-focused policy. Three provinces – BC, Nova Scotia, and, most recently, Newfoundland and Labrador – have appointed ministers or parliamentary assistants to serve as points of contact with sector organizations – significant victories, and evidence that provincial advocacy networks may be better positioned to advance a range of policy priorities that don’t involve tax status.
The reason, according to University of Victoria adjunct professor Peter Elson, can be traced back to a very different time in the world of voluntary sector advocacy.
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In the years following then–finance minister Paul Martin’s 1995 campaign to slay the federal deficit and slash social transfers to the provinces, voluntary sector leaders pushed officials in Ottawa to buttress the government’s relationship with non-profits, many of which were reeling from the fallout of the Liberals’ austerity program. The upshot was the 1999 Voluntary Sector Initiative (VSI), a $94.6-million accord intended to build human resources capacity in the non-profit world, update regulation governing charity registrations, and strengthen ties with federal policy-makers. While applauded at the time, Ottawa pulled the plug on the VSI in 2005.
A 2009 evaluation by Human Resources and Skills Development Canada offered mixed reviews. The authors lauded some of the VSI’s goals, such as the creation of an HR council, but also concluded that process confusion and unrealistic expectations marred the exercise. “There are limits to the areas and extent to which collaboration can take place,” the report noted.
Peter Elson’s own analysis, published in 2011, concluded that federal officials were often frustrated in their dealings with voluntary sector organizations because they weren’t entirely sure whether the people sitting on the other side of the negotiating table were speaking formally on behalf of the collective interests of the sector, or merely representatives.
However, he also points to a possibly unexpected consequence, arising from the eye-opening results of a 2005 Statistics Canada survey, which showed for the first time the extent of relationship between non-profits and provincial governments, especially in terms of the number of people employed in service organizations. “If the VSI did nothing else,” Elson says, “it provided resources for people at the provincial level to come together.” From 2000 to 2010, eight of the 10 provinces initiated voluntary sector policies, while many of the sector’s provincial advocacy networks formed in the past decade or so.
A notable exception, Elson observes, is Quebec’s Chantier de l’économie sociale, which is the most formal of all these organizations. Its origins trace back to the so-called Bread and Roses March of 1996, to protest high unemployment rates. Chantier today, Elson says, is “a very formal, representational hierarchy.” “When a Chantier [official] walks into a room, the government knows it is talking to someone who is representative.” The provincial legislature, in the past, has had standing committees focused on the social economy, with PQ governments making sizable investments in programs such as $7-a-day universal childcare.
Elsewhere, the provincial networks have varied greatly in size, ambition, and outlook. The Community Sector Council of Nova Scotia (CSCNS), for example, was established in 2012, with a dual focus on capacity-building and advocacy. But, as executive director Annika Voltan points out, most of the organization’s efforts for many years were geared mainly at shoring up the administrative capabilities of the province’s 6,000 non-profits, most of which are tiny.
As in some other provinces, the CSCNS’s modest operating budget came from the provincial government, which created an obvious impediment to advocacy. Voltan, who stepped into the ED role last year, says the five-person organization is looking to diversify its revenues. She adds that an informal coalition of Nova Scotia non-profit leaders has formed in response to the pandemic with an eye to increasing the pressure on provincial politicians to take action to support the non-profit sector. For CSCNS, this kind of lobbying is unfamiliar terrain. “This is almost like restarting,” Voltan says. “From an advocacy point of view, it’s a new area.”
Their stepped-up efforts have yielded some positive signals. After the provincial election earlier this year, the new Liberal premier, Iain Rankin, reappointed Suzanne Lohnes-Croft as Minister of Communities, Culture and Heritage and Gaelic Affairs but added responsibility for the voluntary sector to her portfolio. The NDP government in BC last year took a similar step, with Premier John Horgan assigning a parliamentary secretary, Vancouver-Hastings MLA Niki Sharma, to act as a point of contact for non-profits and community development groups. In Newfoundland and Labrador, the newly elected government of Premier Andrew Furey assigned a cabinet minister, John Abbott, to oversee relations with the community sector.
“Our government will build a new, aligned, and productive relationship with the community sector through the Community Sector Council,” Lohnes-Croft’s mandate letter states. “The Office of Strategy Management, Minister of Inclusive Economic Growth, and the Deputy Minister’s cross-government policy committee will build a collective impact framework that aligns government and the community sector in our shared pursuit of opportunities to address long-standing challenges in new and socially innovative ways.”
Voltan, however, is uncertain whether these moves will lead to a “home in government” approach to sector relations. “There’s not a simple answer in terms of what that looks like,” she admits. “Right now, it feels like you have to develop relationships with lots of different departments or people, and they all have a different understanding of the sector.”
The story in some other parts of the country is far less encouraging. The Manitoba Federation of Non-Profit Organizations (MFNPO), for example, had to close its doors in January 2020 when the government pulled the plug on its funding – about $200,000 a year, mainly spent on HR training for members. A few months earlier, says former chair Sandra Oakley, provincial officials conducted a round of meetings with non-profits, but there’s been little news since. “To this day, we are still waiting for the results of the consultation,” she says.
Oakley says that the group had traditionally struggled to connect well with the Manitoba government, which, in recent years, didn’t have an especially favourable view of non-profit advocacy. Administratively, responsibility for dealing with the social services sector’s issues bounced from line ministry to line ministry. “It’s a learning curve every time.”
With the pandemic, an informal group of about 25 sector leaders, including representatives from United Way and the Winnipeg Foundation, began meeting regularly to strategize about advocacy, but so far there’s no formal structure to buttress those discussions.
There’s also a lack of consensus about how to pitch government. Oakley, who has a trade union background, says she has no qualms about speaking out but notes that well-connected board members of some charities are more hesitant. Sector officials also find they encounter a lack of understanding about the role of agencies like United Way, and the work of the non-profit sector in general, although Oakley points out that shocking reports about the COVID-19 infection and mortality rates in for-profit versus non-profit care homes has “focused some people’s attention on the difference between the two.”
“The pandemic,” she says, “has shown us all that the sector does need to advocate collectively, that we can do a lot more [together] than as singular entities.”
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The Ontario Nonprofit Network, which speaks for the province’s 58,000 charities and non-profits, also emerged in the aftermath of the VSI’s demise. Founded in 2012, the ONN’s first several years were spent advocating in what could be described as a politically friendly environment. The provincial Liberals, particularly under then-premier Kathleen Wynne, had many personal connections into the sector and seemed interested in promoting progressive ideas, including a guaranteed basic income. A detailed 2013 sector profile, commissioned by the Liberal government and carried out by a Liberal research firm, Pollara, recommended that the findings represent “a significant starting point for revitalizing research about the NFP sector, valuing its contribution, and discussing the broader research agenda for the sector.”
The June 2018 election, which saw Progressive Conservative Premier Doug Ford swept into power with a strong majority, was a wake-up call, says ONN executive director Cathy Taylor. “We were concerned about regime change,” she acknowledges. “We didn’t have as many relationships as we should have with the opposition.”
Taylor and her team spent much of the following year studying the Ford government’s policy agenda and arranging meetings with MPPs. “We were surprised that there were a lot of opportunities to engage with this government on a lot of issues,” she says. It wasn’t difficult to connect with backbenchers, Taylor adds, because they generally were highly invested in their home-base communities, and many arrived at Queen’s Park with relevant experiences volunteering with local service clubs or youth sports leagues. “We listened very carefully.”
Those sessions provided Taylor and her colleagues with an opportunity to share information about the ONN. They also yielded key insights on areas of potential collaboration, such as the modernization of the transfer payments system and streamlining bureaucratic processes, such as grant applications. “This government was very interested in red-tape reduction,” she says.
All that get-to-know-you spadework paid off when the pandemic hit last year. “We have had early-and-often access to decision-makers through the last year,” says Taylor, who spent many hours on the phone with various ministry officials and made sure they were receiving ONN surveys about the impact of the pandemic. “We really were able to be on that critical stakeholders list. We became a credible intermediary for the government.”
Such connections pose their own challenges, of course: does access come with a price tag? Taylor insists the organization has stayed true to its policy priorities, such as calling for paid sick days, with the Tories and the ONN essentially agreeing to disagree. She adds that they’ve been very careful and clear about sharing their advice and briefings with all four parties.
Beyond the pandemic, the change in government seems to have offered some insights into what hadn’t worked with the Liberals. As has been the case in other provinces, responsibility for dealing with the non-profit sector bounced between junior ministers – a frustrating problem. At one point, a senior Liberal cabinet minister, Eric Hoskins, whose partner, Samantha Nutt, runs War Child, established a partnership with the Ontario Trillium Foundation, a funder that allocates lottery profits. The Tories dismantled it, and Taylor says now that the connection “wasn’t as helpful as it could have been.”
For now, ONN isn’t calling for a home in government. Rather, the group has opted to forge relationships with a wide range of line ministries and continues to slog away at a longer-term project to improve the sector’s capacity to gather and evaluate data in a timely way. As Taylor says, “Our 2021/2022 policy priorities will specifically include a spotlight on data.”
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When Peter Elson took a deep dive into the state of sectoral advocacy in 2014, he concluded that the emergence of stronger provincial networks could be described as the “third wave” of non-profit politics in Canada. He hasn’t changed his view in the seven years since. “The third wave has taken hold, particularly from the sector’s perspective regarding their capacity to organize, train, and communicate collectively with the sector actors and the provincial government,” he says.
In fact, the proposed $10-a-day childcare plan, announced to much fanfare in the Liberals’ April budget, will actually amplify the importance of provincial advocacy, despite the presence of all those federal dollars. After all, since childcare is a social program, the provincial governments hold most of the jurisdictional cards in terms of determining the shape of this long-awaited program, which means the provincial non-profit advocacy networks have their work cut out for them.
And even beyond the importance of pressing for a non-profit- or community-driven childcare system, the health crisis of the past year, alongside newly urgent demands for equity, a reckoning about institutional racism, and troubling revelations about the vulnerability of front-line social service workers, has added plenty of momentum to Elson’s third wave. “It’s a pandemic,” Karen Ball of the CCVO states bluntly. “There’s no sitting back at this point in time.”