How do we ensure the sector has a significant voice in affecting public policy? New research shines a light on the sector’s advocacy efforts, the related challenges, and the structures needed to make that advocacy both broad-based and nimble.
While life has mostly returned to normal for many charities and non-profits, the sector has continued to be haunted by a flashbulb memory of the first pandemic year. As an extraordinarily wide range of groups not only got the federal government’s ear, but succeeded in negotiating supports for themselves, the charitable sector found its efforts initially disregarded. It was only relatively late in the pandemic that Ottawa extended some of the relief programs designed for private sector employers to those in the non-profit world.
The episode was not an isolated event and comes at a time when there’s been growing discussion about the sector’s voice. For years, some charities and non-profits chafed at rules severely limiting political activities. They were struck down by the Ontario Superior Court in 2018, but only following the advocacy chill imposed by the Harper government’s decision to go after environmental charities suspected of being overly partisan.
Other recent advocacy battles have been less dramatic yet no less important for the sector, among them continued and only partially successful efforts to establish a bureaucratic toehold in the federal government, legislative reforms to regulations governing the direction and control of charitable operations overseas and the disbursement quotas of foundations, and the achingly slow federal response to the 2019 report of the Senate’s special committee on the sector’s future.
Commenting in The Philanthropist Journal in 2016 on the role of advocacy for charitable organizations, Max Bell Foundation senior fellow Roger Gibbins made the case for the importance of an activity that is too often relegated to the sides of desks: “A benefit of charitable policy advocacy … is that charities can be a useful sounding board for governments, bringing their experience to bear on program design, implementation, and evaluation,” he observed. “The bottom line is that charitable status conveys a moral responsibility to be an active agent within civil society, that charities must be more than the sum of their government contracts and charitable receipts. At a fundamental level, charitable status implies not only the power to row but also the obligation to steer, to be thought leaders in the arena of ideas.”
A set of studies by the Max Bell and Muttart foundations, as well as one commissioned by Imagine Canada, have sought to shine a light on the sector’s advocacy efforts, and in particular the organizational structures from which they emerge. The principal author of the Bell/Muttart reports is Carleton University political scientist Susan Phillips, while the Imagine Canada evaluation was carried out by Yves Savoie.
It was clear to me that [advocacy] was becoming a more important question.Allan Northcott, Max Bell Foundation
According to Max Bell president Allan Northcott and Muttart executive director Bob Wyatt, the Carleton studies aimed to figure out how advocacy might take place in the sector in coming years, given not only the impact of the pandemic but also calls for more diversity among sector organizations and the relaxation of federal rules around political activity. “It was clear to me that [advocacy] was becoming a more important question,” Northcott says of the new regulations governing advocacy. Wyatt adds that in his mind, the other big question, which has yet to be answered, is how or even if that advocacy will coalesce around some national network. “Is there a better way for the sector to get its act together?”
Though these assessments are separate, the authors freely acknowledge that on many key points, they’ve landed on similar or identical conclusions – evidence that there’s a consensus about the issues, although there’s still much debate about the solutions.
There is widespread agreement that sector policy leadership could be strengthened, although there are differing assessments of how best to do this.From “Conversations on Policy Leadership”
The Carleton research team’s second report (the first was released in November 2021), entitled Conversations on Policy Leadership for Canada’s Charitable and Nonprofit Sector and released in June, is based on 41 interviews with sector participants. One of the key take-aways from the report, and a point that Northcott and Wyatt stress, is that sector-wide networks aren’t well connected: “The current policy leadership of the sector is seen to be limited by: a lack of coordination across organizations – the problem of ‘getting our act together’; ineffectiveness as policy advocates; and lack of equity-seeking group participation in existing sector leadership mechanisms,” the authors observe, adding that there “is widespread agreement that sector policy leadership could be strengthened, although there are differing assessments of how best to do this.”
Savoie, for his part, begins his evaluation (which is not yet available on the Imagine Canada website) with a similar conclusion, albeit expressed less directly: “This research project is rooted in the conviction that the sector would benefit from a place where those who work to advance policy with a focus on the Federal Government and with a sector-wide perspective could come together to influence public policy. It aims to measure the appetite, test the feasibility, and explore design features for such a network.”
At issue for both is the elusive problem of how to build a nimble and effective advocacy machine that is inclusive and broad-based geographically. According to both the Carleton team and Savoie, there’s no consensus on how to create such a network from the organizational foundation that currently exists – that is, Imagine Canada, perennially underfunded, at the centre, with a series of provincial or regional networks operating in their own spheres.
The participants in the Muttart/Bell research broadly felt there was no case for establishing a new organization. Savoie’s 20 recommendations, by contrast, begin with a call to build a new sectoral public policy network, with a broad membership.
Defining a powerful and compelling vision for a single network that would energize the entire charitable and nonprofit sector in its broadest ambit may not be feasible.Yves Savoie, “Working Better Together”
Both indicate that there’s currently no broad agreement on the eventual raison d’etre of either an enhanced advocacy network or an entirely new organization. As Savoie observes, some of the groups he interviewed felt that this new sector advocacy network should focus primarily on structural issues – funding, home-in-government, regulation, and capacity building for members. Another set of participants felt a national network should address itself to issues such as equity, diversity, poverty, discrimination, and decolonization. “The challenge of creating unity of purpose in such a network is real,” Savoie cautions. “Defining a powerful and compelling vision for a single network that would energize the entire charitable and nonprofit sector in its broadest ambit may not be feasible.”
The Carleton team’s respondents split into these two camps, but added one more, in terms of the objects of such an entity: “community outcomes.” As the authors write, “These include issues over which the federal government has jurisdiction, but also involve provincial matters and local communities, for example: sector workforce recruitment and retention; funding models and availability; data collection and dissemination; and support for volunteerism.”
Are we ensuring that what’s happening at the provincial level is connected to the national system?Bruce MacDonald, Imagine Canada
Imagine Canada CEO Bruce MacDonald says the sector needs to solidify and broaden a federated structure that exists among provincial groups, like the Ontario Nonprofit Network. The provincial groups, he says, are already the “nodes” of the system, but, he asks, “Are we ensuring that what’s happening at the provincial level is connected to the national system?”
In an interview earlier in the fall, Phillips noted the historical evolution of the charitable sector’s advocacy efforts. In 2000, the federal Liberals and 77 non-profit leaders established the Voluntary Sector Initiative (VSI), a five-year program that, Phillips says, sought to “get ahead of the issues.” “There was a recognition that they needed to do something to speak as a sector. That was a lot easier to do back then than it is now.”
In the years following the VSI, the Canadian Centre for Philanthropy, which was founded in 1981, evolved into Imagine Canada. But over 20 years, Phillips says, large segments of the sector have been disengaged from national lobbying efforts, while sub-sectors, like arts and health groups, generally stay in their own lanes when it comes to advocacy.
During the pandemic, the federal government ignored Imagine Canada’s $9-billion relief ask, while the WE Charity scandal not only cast the sector in a negative light but revealed how little Ottawa understands about how the non-profit world works. For many years, the sector has sought what’s often described as “a home in government” – some kind of secretariat or coordinating body – to broker the relationship and educate policy-makers. But, as Phillips points out, such a fix could be a double-edged sword. “That could be more dangerous than helpful if you don’t have a strong voice on the other side.”
These advocacy dilemmas are not unique to Canada. Last year, for example, 50 charitable organizations in the UK established a national lobbying group to sharpen their advocacy efforts. As the industry publication Third Sector noted, “The Civil Society Group, which has been launched [November 4, 2021] with 55 members including the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, the chief executives’ body Acevo, the Chartered Institute of Fundraising and the Small Charities Coalition, said it wanted to increase collaboration among members, improve efficiency and effectiveness and ‘clearly articulate shared priorities and views to government.’”
The move came in part in response to harsh criticism from some UK sector players who felt that British charities and non-profits had focused too much on asking for financial assistance rather than on offering support to people whose lives had been disrupted.
Phillips also points to what’s happening in Australia, where the national government 10 years ago established the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission as the regulator, acting under its own legislation and including a mandate to limit unnecessary regulation for 60,000 sector organizations. The commission has come under fire in recent years for losing sight of its core purpose, so one of the main objectives of Australia’s national charities advocacy group has been to advocate for reforms.
As David Crosbie, CEO of the Community Council for Australia, the umbrella group, wrote in a recent blog post, “What is needed now is not wholesale changes to what was a very successful organisation, but a reset of the organisational culture to one of engagement rather than enforcement, working in collaboration with the sector rather than acting as an external authority, giving back in return for the input of information provided by charities.”
That dispute underscores another possible role for sector umbrella organizations – not just structural reforms to rules such as direction and control regulations or the quantum of the distribution quota, but also pushing federal authorities to do a better job when it comes to regulating charities and non-profits.
While the Muttart/Bell reports go to some lengths to avoid finger-pointing, many of the leaders interviewed for these analyses expressed frustration with Imagine Canada. “The shortcomings that were volunteered about Imagine Canada, widely seen to be the national lead on policy for the sector, are: it lacks resources and capacity; is not perceived to be a natural ‘convenor’; and its work has become quite diffused, spread across different activities so that its policy role is not as central or as strong as it could be,” Phillips and her collaborators observed.
Among the proposals for bolstering Imagine Canada: transform it into a “policy shop,” strengthening its connections to other groups and networks, and reposition it as a “participatory forum.” “The main drawback of a broadly based dialogue forum,” Phillips cautions, “is that consensus is not crafted from the diversity [of views], so that little progress on policy is actually achieved.”
MacDonald says the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) “resonates.” The organization, founded decades ago by businessman John Bulloch, is a federated network of national and provincial groups that also wade into local/municipal advocacy in some cases. They fund research, lobby and communicate with the media, but also provide services to members as an incentive to join – a tactic similar to that used by the Canadian Association of Retired Persons. But, he cautions, the service component of that model remains unclear in terms of what Imagine can or could offer. “A sustainable business model has to be worked out,” he says.
Phillips, however, regards that kind of transactional membership model as problematic, although it does offer a solution to the issue of free-riding – that is, groups or organizations that can benefit from the work performed by an industry group without actually helping to support it. “I think that might have had value for some kinds of organizations at one point of time,” she says. “I don’t think that’s the way forward as a financing model for this sort of [organization]. But you do need to have a value added. It may not be one that you price and sell, but it still has to have a value to those who would join in.”
The network’s membership model should be one where both the members and the network have mutual accountabilities not solely based on financial contributions.Yves Savoie, “Working Better Together”
Savoie’s prescription doesn’t venture into this kind of approach, and rather suggests that two or three foundations set out to look for seed funding for the new policy advocacy network he’s proposed, among them Imagine Canada. He estimates the initial outlay to be in the neighbourhood of $350,000 over the first two years.
“The network’s membership model should be one where both the members and the network have mutual accountabilities not solely based on financial contributions,” he argues. “The model should provide for a mechanism for smaller community-based organizations to be exempted from paying membership dues as may be necessary to ensure their participation while incenting larger, well-resourced organizations to make more significant contributions.”
If there is to be something new, it has to be owned by the organizations that want to do the policy work.Allan Northcott
For all the probing and introspection of the past year, the big issue of what a new or invigorated policy network should do remains an open question, as is its ultimate structure. As MacDonald says, “To me, form follows function.” Wyatt, for his part, sees a national policy advocacy network as having a kind of hub-and-spoke structure.
But Northcott and Wyatt stress that whatever emerges from this process cannot and should not be funder driven – a detail that came out loud and clear from Phillips’s team’s interviews with charities. “If there is to be something new,” Northcott says, “it has to be owned by the organizations that want to do the policy work.”
Wyatt says he’s eager to hear the feedback that comes in to Phillips and her research team and has no intention of pre-judging the results or imposing a funder’s view. “Where this ends up, I have no clue.”
More details about the initiative can be found here: carleton.ca/panl/2022/study-feedback-on-cross-sector-leadership-report. The study team is welcoming feedback until December 15, and can be contacted by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.