The need for the sector to lead on policy advocacy has been described as a moral imperative, yet it often faces criticism that it has lost its sense of urgency and become too content as a service-delivery vehicle. Contributor Tim Harper looks at policy institutes across Canada that are teaching the pragmatic skills of building support, refining a policy “ask,” and having bureaucratic and political doors open.
As part of the ongoing debate over the charitable sector’s role – or lack of a role – in policy advocacy, it is instructive to define what policy advocacy is not.
It is not scaling buildings or hanging banners from bridges, nor is it defacing art or blocking traffic. There is a long history of such disruptive advocacy and it has led to success, particularly in moving environmental concerns to the top of political agendas. But policy advocacy is a skill that requires patience, focus, resilience, and an understanding of the inner workings of government. Policy advocacy turns zeal into strategy and anger into persistence.
The need for the sector to lead on policy advocacy has been described as a moral imperative, yet the sector often faces criticism that it has lost its sense of urgency, too meekly becoming a pale vessel for service delivery.
But there is a churn in the sector, driven by policy schools across the country that are reporting an uptick in applicants who want to learn how to channel passion for an issue into the pragmatic skills of building support, refining a policy “ask,” and having bureaucratic and political doors open. They learn skills such as negotiating treaties and narrowing and refining a message. They are learning how to build collective action and the fine points of government relations. And they are learning from those from the government side of the divide who have been the target of those policy asks over the years.
In British Columbia, such work is being done by the Vancouver Foundation and United Way British Columbia. In Alberta, it is done by the Max Bell Foundation and in Ontario by Maytree and the Gordon Foundation. It may not be sexy or headline-grabbing work, but it is essential if Canadian charities are going to grab policy levers going forward. The question is – is it enough?
Charities need to be able to talk to their donors about how they are going to solve the problem, not just mitigate it.Kevin McCort, Vancouver Foundation
Kevin McCort, president and CEO of the Vancouver Foundation, says charities are increasingly hearing from donors who wonder why they are still contributing to food banks and homeless shelters instead of going upstream and dealing with the roots of the problem.
“That funding is needed, but charities need to be able to talk to their donors about how they are going to solve the problem, not just mitigate it,” McCort says. He says there is a need for charities to pivot from the service sector to the “solution sector.”
Allan Northcott, president of Max Bell, says there is always a need for more policy advocacy from charities. It is essential to democracy, he argues. He says it takes charities to speak for those whose voices would not be heard above the din on social issues ranging from homelessness to food insecurity to addiction issues. Environmental charities need to continue to be vocal: “Rivers and streams can’t speak for themselves,” he says.
The sector has to be the heartbeat of society and move away from incremental change.Abdul Nakua, Muslim Association of Canada
But others fear that the sector’s voice is waning and that it has become too content as a service-delivery vehicle. “You don’t sense a vibrancy, or that people want to make change and challenge the status quo and get angry at things they don’t like,” says Abdul Nakua, who sits on the board of directors of the Ontario Nonprofit Network and is an executive with the Muslim Association of Canada. “The sector has to be the heartbeat of society and move away from incremental change.”
It was seven years ago that Roger Gibbins, then a senior fellow at Max Bell, writing in this journal, offered a clarion call of sorts, prodding charities to find their policy advocacy voice: “Charitable status confers a privileged position that comes at a price: that charities necessarily assume a moral obligation to pursue the public good,” he wrote. Charitable status implies not only the power to row but also the obligation to steer, “to be thought leaders in the arena of ideas,” he wrote.
Yet the advocacy landscape six years later remains uneven, and a wariness of government remains, often manifested in a fear of biting “the hand that feeds.”
The non-profit advocacy group Canadians for Tax Fairness won national attention in February with a study that found that Canadian corporations had spent on dividends, share buybacks, and corporate takeovers while accessing Ottawa’s pandemic relief fund. It aggressively rejects charitable status “because Canadian governments have used withdrawing that status to pressure organizations to be less critical of government policies, and we must maintain our freedom of advocacy and independence.”
Greenpeace Canada echoes that approach, maintaining that it is a non-profit, not a charity, so it can “advocate effectively and maintain our freedom to act on environmental issues.”
But the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, a progressive policy research institute that influences government policy, is a charity and provides receipts for donations. The Green Budget Coalition, a group of 23 environmental organizations that recommends policy on environmental sustainability to the federal government, shows that charities can find a collective voice. It includes well-known charities like Ducks Unlimited, the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, Ecojustice Canada, the Pembina Institute, and Friends of the Earth, among others well-known to Canadians.
Political advocacy, beyond policy advocacy, appears to remain a bridge too far for Canadian charities. As we reported during the 2021 federal election, a mere 10 of the country’s estimated 86,000 charities had registered as third-party advertisers in the campaign, meaning they had spent more than $500 to amplify a message that was also policy of a registered political party.
Those who are funding policy advocacy institutes see the difficulties charities have in moving beyond service delivery. They say there is a fear that a deep engagement in policy may turn off donors who are not invested in policy change but prefer spending directly to help those in immediate need. There is still the remnant of the chill from the restrictions and targeting of the Stephen Harper years and fear of running afoul of the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA). There is the capacity question – both the size of the charity and the lack of human resources needed to advocate while delivering core services that are increasingly in demand. Too many executive directors of charities are left to do policy advocacy “off the sides of their desk” while juggling other demands, they say.
Policy advocacy is not a game of overnight successes. Vancouver’s Generation Squeeze worked for $10-a-day daycare for 11 years while being funded by the Vancouver Foundation. “Fixing systems is hard and slow work,” the charity says on its website, “because they are grounded in cultural myths and values that are hard to change.” Charities that cannot deliver quick victories can suffer from donor fatigue without such backing.
Esther Moreno, the capacity-building specialist for United Way British Columbia, knows how long such work can take.
I learned how to do asks. I learned to be unforgettable in those spaces.Esther Moreno, United Way British Columbia
She came to advocacy after leaving a teaching position and learned to be an activist while facilitating United Way BC’s Public Policy Institute, learning along with the participants. “I learned how to do asks. I learned to be unforgettable in those spaces,” she says. Her education taught her how to push Vancouver City Council on a promised community centre, starting with a deputation (accompanied by her two children) in 2018. After three years of work, she won a commitment that city staff would study funding for the centre. The next year, at the final council meeting before the summer break, she won unanimous approval, and ground will be broken for the centre in 2025 in southeast Vancouver.
The policy race is a marathon, she says. “You can’t come out of the gate hot.”
I had to learn how not to respond as an activist and not just lash out.Julia Boyle, AutismBC
Yet Julia Boyle, a graduate of Moreno’s program and executive director of AutismBC, was able to force the BC government to rescind a policy on autism funding within months of her work at the Public Policy Institute. She credits the institute with providing a window into the way government operates. “I had to learn how not to respond as an activist and not just lash out,” she says. (Boyle and other grads will be featured in the second part of this series.)
Elizabeth McIsaac, president of Maytree, also learned policy advocacy on the fly. “I was learning as I went,” she says. “I had no structured skills.”
She identified two chills that still affect charitable advocacy. “There was the Harper era and the way the environmental organizations were treated and the fear of colouring outside the lines,” she says. “It created an environment in which we began to think we shouldn’t be doing that kind of stuff, that policy is political activity. We had to learn the difference between those two things and the ambiguity in what CRA allowed and didn’t allow.”
She adds that a sizeable portion of the sector is sub-contracted by the government to deliver services for immigrants, on employment services, in health and education – so there is reticence to push for changes for fear of endangering funding.
Maytree’s Policy School for senior policy professionals received 100 applications and accepted 21 for this year’s course. The Vancouver Foundation’s LEVEL Youth Policy Program brings together 16 Indigenous and racialized immigrant and refugee youth aged 19 to 29 from across BC to provide training to shape and advocate for public policy that addresses issues in their lives. It was initially envisioned as a five-year pilot project and completed its third year last fall. After a pause, it will continue for two more years in 2024.
At United Way British Columbia, 37 applicants vied for 25 spots, including those with positions at charities and others who are operating at the grassroots level. All must have a specific advocacy project, and they are taught how to deliver a 10-minute ask that will get you invited back and remembered. Participants will learn how to craft a specific story, with evidence and knowledge of their audience, Moreno says.
The Public Policy Training Institute at Calgary’s Max Bell Foundation is available to employees or board members of registered charities. This year there were 35 applicants for 25 spots, the largest number of applicants it has ever had. Participants deal in real-time policy work with an ask their organization is already pursuing.
The Gordon Foundation is known for its Northern Policy Hackathons and its treaty negotiation simulations. Its “treaty sims” bring emerging Indigenous leaders to the table to learn from Elders, negotiators, and government officials, and its hackathons bring together residents of the three territories and Inuit Nunangat to develop policy recommendations based on their lived experience.
Across the board, we need more young Indigenous people participating. There are not enough Indigenous young people in the system.Sherry Campbell, Gordon Foundation
If young people leave the treaty sim and are inspired to work for government, that is a victory, says Gordon president and CEO Sherry Campbell. “Let’s change from the inside,” she says. “Across the board, we need more young Indigenous people participating. There are not enough Indigenous young people in the system.”
She and others involved in policy institutes see real progress. Campbell says there are more avenues for young Indigenous people to learn policy, and Northcott says his intuition tells him that more funders are paying attention to these programs and that organizations are gaining interest in public policy work.
We are talking about the root of the problem, and public policy is always the answer, at every level of government.Esther Moreno
“More conversations are happening about solving problems upstream,” Moreno says. “We are talking about the root of the problem, and public policy is always the answer, at every level of government.”
Room is also being made for members of the arts community in this country when it comes to policy discussions. Each year the Banff Forum brings together up to 200 thought leaders shaping Canada’s future, welcoming members of the artistic community through the Arne Bengt Johansson Fellowship. The fellowship is open to anyone who can demonstrate a body of work in the visual arts, performance, writing or media, and digital arts and “an interest in contributing to debate and discussion related to Canadian policy and ways to improve the lives of all Canadians.”
Executive director Roxanne Duncan says the Banff Forum does work similar to the foundations, except “the pipeline runs in an opposite direction.” Instead of having members of the artistic community leave with only more policy understanding, they contribute their perspective to policy discussions with thought leaders from other sectors.
The perspective of artists has often been absent in conversations about policy on how to make Canada better.Roxanne Duncan, Banff Forum
It frees artists from always having to advocate on behalf of the arts and brings a different, often progressive, perspective to discussions, breaking down silos and demonstrating that artists are more than the clichéd view that they “are pretty people doing pretty things,” Duncan says. “That perspective has often been absent in conversations about policy on how to make Canada better.”
McIsaac says the appetite for change is there in the sector and it is increasingly aware that the change it seeks requires policy skills. “We’ve had a lot of people coming through on the question of housing, and you are not making a difference in that sphere without sharp policy skills,” she says.
But, with a few exceptions, foundations are content to teach and develop policy muscle and leave the actual advocacy to those on the ground who know what is needed in their field.
Foundations have a responsibility to do more policy advocating, as they don’t depend on external government and other funding – they can take bolder leadership in advocating on various issues.Sherry Campbell
“I do believe foundations have a responsibility to do more policy advocating, as foundations don’t depend on external government and other funding – they can certainly take bolder leadership in advocating on various issues,” says Campbell. “I hope they do this in consultation with the groups that they support who are on the ground and have lived experience in these policy issues.” Otherwise, she says, Gordon builds policy muscle for those on the front lines.
The Vancouver Foundation and Max Bell take similar paths.
“The criticism that is made is that a foundation that advocates for specific policy is doing it from a position of power, and that’s probably fair,” says Northcott. “Maybe it’s an influential family or a big pile of money. They can be seen as a bunch of unelected, out-of-touch fat cats.”
“We’ve always tried to be the light that illuminates rather than the glare that obscures,” McCort says. “We’ve never tried to step in front of the parade on any particular issue.”
Policy is the biggest lever of change available. So to make change happen, you’ve got to get to that.Elizabeth McIsaac, Maytree
At Maytree, however, McIsaac says policy advocacy is in its DNA. “Policy is the biggest lever of change available. So to make change happen, you’ve got to get to that.” Maytree has a policy team working on income and housing security and income benefits, and it worked three years to get student loans for convention refugees (referring to the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees). It funded the Caledon Institute of Social Policy, and, since Caledon’s 2017 closing, Maytree hosts its archives. Maytree’s name is synonymous with poverty eradication.
Then there is the approach of Toronto’s Daymark Foundation, which is building its capacity muscle with a specific goal in mind, in this case ensuring that provincial, territorial, and federal governments support women’s perinatal mental health.
Poor perinatal mental health is both “preventable and treatable,” says Daymark executive Vani Jain. It is not a stand-alone, funded policy – or even on the radar – of any government in Canada, yet during the pandemic it affected about 50% of pregnant and new mothers, she says. Daymark has prioritized women’s mental health as a priority issue.
“It’s exciting to tackle something you think you can make a dent in,” Jain says. “It doesn’t feel like an issue that will take billions of dollars to address.”
Jain says what she is trying to do differs from the foundation-funded policy institutes because she is trying to build collective capacity, rather than individual capacity. Indeed, she expects more than 100 participants in her collective field at different levels of engagement, ranging from supporters who will share and endorse the recommendations to those willing to manage the project, oversee the deliverables, and help fund the project. Participation will be based on expertise, interest, and availability. Some will learn policy chops, she says, but “our teaching is a means to an end. We are trying to advance this one singular issue and trying to do that by leveraging collective voice. If individuals or organizations build their capacity to engage through this process, that’s wonderful, but that’s not the reason that we are doing it.”
But, like her peers, she doesn’t want the light to be shone on Daymark. “We have a leading-from-the-middle strategy. We don’t want to be leading from the front … we don’t want the solutions and policy recommendations to be known as what Daymark wants. It is what the field wants.”
The second article in this series will focus on policy school grads and policy wins.