Martha Rans, a lawyer who specializes in the legal needs of non-profits and charities, objects to the word “lobbying” to describe the sector’s advocacy. “We are not advocating for our own bottom line,” she says. “We are advocating for the public benefit.”
I completely agree with John Lorinc’s point, in his February 2021 column, that the last federal budget is likely a groundbreaking moment for the non-profit sector. He is quite right to point out that the non-profit sector should be front and centre in the budget. We need a funded home for the sector federally, and we need one in every province. BC has begun this process with the appointment of Nikki Sharma as Parliamentary Secretary for Community Development and Non-Profits. (We look forward to the day when such a position comes with a budgetary allocation to support the capacity of the non-profit sector.)
However, I think other factors have a critical role to play in the platforming of the non-profit sector. Yes, the “political purposes” issue for charities has been a disincentive for some groups. But charities represent only part of the broader non-profit sector. In BC, for example, there are now 30,000 non-profits. It’s fair to say that every citizen of the province is affected by the work of the non-profit sector. By extension, every citizen in Canada has been affected by the non-profit sector. We are the grassroots organizers in local communities, working in the public interest.
We are not advocating for policies for our own bottom line. Rather, we are advocating for the public benefit.
Most non-profits that I work with are not charities and pay little attention to the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA). They are too busy doing public interest work. In many areas, members of the non-profit sector are the experts on day-to-day issues, from child- and after-school care to housing and hospice care. We take care of people from the cradle to the grave. Our working reality, however, is that we are stretched thin, limited in many cases to spending only 10% of our budget on “administration” funds that barely keep the doors open. The pandemic has only made that worse. So when we do participate in advocacy, it is difficult to do so on a sustained basis. To be required to register as lobbyists undermines our ability to continue to do this work.
Advocating for our work is not lobbying as you, and many others, appear to be using the term. We are not advocating for policies for our own bottom line. Rather, we are advocating for the public benefit. Charities have already been found to be operating for the public benefit. However, the government does not recognize that what most of us do when we advocate is work to benefit others, not ourselves. (Here is more analysis on the difference between public benefit and member benefit.) Non-profit sector advocacy builds awareness and provides vital information to governments about our work. Calling what we do “lobbying” changes the public’s perception of our work and, for those who fear repercussions as a consequence of registering as lobbyists, denies government the chance to learn from these very important voices.
Applying the word ‘lobbying’ to a sector that puts the ‘public’ in public policy is simply wrong.
For this reason, in BC, a number of us have been actively seeking a review of the requirements of the BC Lobbyists Transparency Act, and ultimately, I hope, an exemption from it so that non-profits and charities can get on with our work without the added burden and chilling effects of registration. We are not the same as companies lobbying to increase dividends to shareholders. Applying the word “lobbying” to a sector that puts the “public” in public policy is simply wrong. Civil society – another term for the non-profit sector – upholds democracy.
The media has a critical role to play in supporting the sector. Lorinc’s article describes the Canadian Federation of Independent Business as an “organization … not afraid of being strident, getting its spokespeople in front of the media, and making sure it can mobilize its members. CFIB spokespeople are stingy with their praise for governments; they know how to keep the pot boiling.”
So, too, does the non-profit sector. However, the coverage by the media of us is almost uniformly focused on the likes of WE Charity. It was the media that slathered its focus on WE when they were pretty (celebrities!) – and so too when they fell into disrepute. They do not reflect the reality of most non-profits. We are unseen and largely unheard by much of the media.