Could a sector that has been plagued by infighting and polarization come together and build new muscle, make its voice heard in the capital, and move beyond being a budget afterthought by government?
Over the course of two grey Ottawa spring days, some 60 representatives from a broad swath of the charitable and non-profit sector gathered in an eighth-floor conference room as part of a grand experiment.
The challenges they faced in that room were daunting. Could a sector that has often been plagued by infighting and polarization come together and build new muscle, make its voice heard in the capital, and move beyond being a budget afterthought by government? Could it craft a new narrative, come up with consensus on budget asks that help the sector and the community, and have appeal across the political spectrum?
Could it galvanize around issues such that a government might pay a price for ignoring a sector that produces 8% of its gross domestic product?
And could it take inspiration from a coalition born over beers between environmentalists and a finance minister in an Ottawa pub in 1999, an informal gathering that led to what is today universally acknowledged as one of the country’s leading advocacy organizations?
What was generated over those two days this spring, to the surprise of both organizers and participants, was a wellspring of energy and signs of a rapidly maturing sector. They were trying to hone a message to government, and such was the conviction in their voices, if they spoke just a little louder they might have been heard on Parliament Hill, a handful of blocks to the north.
The key here is the experiment. It is the idea of bringing together organizations in a structured and systematic way in order to have greater impact.Bruce MacDonald, Imagine Canada
“For me, the key here is the experiment,” says Bruce MacDonald, the CEO of Imagine Canada, which organized the gathering. “It is the idea of bringing together organizations in a structured and systematic way in order to have greater impact. Now, how do we learn from this and what do we do with it going forward?”
Veterans in the sector remarked on the lack of self-interest in the room and the willingness of the sector to come together. That effort to seek consensus comes with greater diversity in the sector, and representatives of even the smallest organizations reported that their voices were heard and their views were respected. For some in the room, it was a bit of a revelation.
There was a struggle to get to consensus on key issues [with the Voluntary Sector Initiative], and there was always jockeying among leaders. These are new leaders now.Damon Johnston, National Urban Indigenous Coalition Council
Damon Johnston of Winnipeg, the co-chair of the National Urban Indigenous Coalition Council (NUICC), remembers the travails of the sector seeking a voice more than two decades ago, during the ambitious Voluntary Sector Initiative, a government–sector working group established in 2000. “Differences came out during that period,” he says. “There was a struggle to get to consensus on key issues, and there was always jockeying among leaders. These are new leaders now.”
He is also impressed at the willingness within the sector to listen to the voices of small organizations, such as his. “Some of us small organizations are important,” he says. “A lot of us punch above our weight. The willingness to listen to each other and really hear each other and the clear signals that we are open to change and we are working together is very positive.”
There were all levels of non-profits at the table – there was a real mix. It was useful to be in that room and to have that opportunity to have conversations with those outside of my usual circles.Lise Martin, Women’s Shelters Canada
Lise Martin, the executive director of the Ottawa-based Women’s Shelters Canada, was interacting with Imagine Canada for the first time when she arrived at the conference. “There were all levels of non-profits at the table – there was a real mix,” she says. “It was useful to be in that room and to have that opportunity to have conversations with those outside of my usual circles.”
Martin’s equality-seeking sub-sector had never been involved in these types of discussions about crafting a sector-wide narrative, she says. “We have been the poor sister of the [equality-seeking] sector,” she says. “When you look at our funding as compared to the environmental sector or the international development sector or the social justice sector, we have been at the bottom of that.”
Funding for the equality-seeking sub-sector was traditionally at the bottom of the government hierarchy as well, she says. Her sub-sector has worked together but has never made a common budget submission. “We’ve always scrambled to put something together last-minute,” she says.
One of the chronic weaknesses in the sector, participants were told, was that government pays no price for ignoring it. That is illustrated in a sobering statistic: the charitable and non-profit sector provided 300 of the 700 submissions received by the government before the last budget. But there were 10 references to charities in the budget and 187 references to business.
The sector aims to change that in its 2024 budget submissions, and after two days of discussion, those in the room settled on four broad themes, considered pre-budget priorities:
- Federal funding and administration of funding. That might include pushing for a 10-year extension of the Community Services Recovery Fund, made available to the sector as it adapted to the pressures of the pandemic.
- Under the broad topic of data, participants cited the need for building information on the depth and scope of the sector, identifying trends in giving and the populations being served, and keeping better tabs on its own health, with information on which organizations are closing and which are opening. There were also suggestions on how to dovetail these needs with the needs of government because better data helps inform better public policy and allows government to gauge whether it is getting a good bang for its buck.
- A labour-force strategy (including both paid and volunteer labour), possibly including tax benefits for employees in the sector and promoting the sector within government as a pathway to employment for immigrant women.
- A home in government, a long-standing debate within the sector. Where would it be housed, what would it look like, and what would it be called? In the US, the Nonprofit Stakeholders Engaging and Advancing Together (Nonprofit SEAT) Act would establish a White House office on non-profits so their work would remain visible at the highest levels of government. It would also provide regular non-profit workforce data, improve the federal grant process, and increase access to national service and expand the pathway to volunteerism. Would Canadian non-profits aim that high? Should they?
A model for the way forward could be found in the Green Budget Coalition (GBC), which has had remarkable success since then–finance minister Paul Martin told a handful of environmentalists in that Ottawa pub that night that maybe they should form a coalition. Today, they are dealing with a federal environment minister, Steven Guilbeault, who was once a member of the coalition.
The GBC began as an alliance of 10 national nature and environmental groups and has grown to 21 organizations representing more than a million Canadians. It deals strictly on consensus, with a budget of $230,0000, half covered by members and half provided by seven charitable foundations. For years, it operated with nothing on paper. “Groups talk it through and come to an understanding,” says Andrew Van Iterson, the coalition’s manager.
It may give off a vibe of informality, but GBC follows a rigorous schedule, Van Iterson says. In a typical budget cycle, work begins in March with coalition members synthesizing up to 40 issues. It sets a May 5 deadline for a draft of its recommendations and has a document finalized by June 1. The GBC will meet with senior government officials in 15 to 20 departments, as well as Indigenous groups. By the autumn, it is taking its asks to cabinet ministers, their deputies, the Prime Minister’s Office, political staff, and MPs from all parties while promoting them in both traditional and social media. Their formal meeting with the finance minister usually takes place between November and February before the traditional late-winter budget release. Once the budget is released, the GBC begins work on the next year’s submission.
They try to limit their budget recommendations to between three and five each year – usually ones that jibe with a government commitment and have political momentum. Discipline extends to the presentation. While there might be 30 members on a call with Guilbeault, the GBC is strict on who presents to the minister, and the length of the presentation.
Its recommendations are framed in the language of government priorities, including the economy and job creation, affordability, Indigenous reconciliation, or healthcare. Van Iterson’s coalition knows to be specific with dollar asks and to be prepared to explain why recent funding on an initiative is not enough.
Over the past three years, its core asks have resulted in more than $25 billion in government funding and more than $25 billion in tax benefits on clean-electricity building retrofits, clean transportation, nature-based climate solutions, and protection of environmentally sensitive areas.
At the conference, Van Iterson shared a couple of key insights that the sector could heed: GBC has never advocated for any policy that is merely for the benefit of its members, and it has learned that the environment remains the same regardless of a change in government. That can be applied to any issue: “Keep working at it,” he told the gathering. And while timing, clarity of the budget ask, and a commitment to forge true consensus are crucial, Van Iterson points to one more key: persistence.
The GBC is the gold standard in pushing government for its priorities. A senior finance official has told Van Iterson that he helms the best advocacy group in the country.
The goal can’t be unanimity. The goal has to be cohesion and respectful disagreement.Bruce MacDonald
MacDonald says the charitable sector must learn the lesson from the GBC that silos and infighting stymies any sectoral progress. “The goal can’t be unanimity. The goal has to be cohesion and respectful disagreement,” he says. “If we have a broad coalition for, say, a parliamentary secretary as our structure for a home in government but there are outliers who disagree, does the government see the creation of the broad coalition as strong enough support to withstand the criticism?”
If we wait for perfection, we miss another year. We have to learn lessons from the past.Bruce MacDonald
MacDonald believes all pre-budget priorities have to be framed in a way that shows public benefit, even while benefiting the sector. “If we wait for perfection, we miss another year.”
The sector is still aiming for pre-budget submissions to the existing Liberal government, but it must also be ready for change and provide asks that will be palatable across the political spectrum – a tall challenge. Any sector asks must also have the ear of Conservatives, and that means speaking to the opposition now, MacDonald says.
“We have to learn lessons from the past,” he says. “There was a sense that the sector was very closely affiliated with the Liberal governments of [Jean] Chrétien and Martin, which did a disservice to the sector when Stephen Harper was elected. We have to have broader appeal across the political spectrum to be viewed as community advocates, regardless of political stripe.”
The sector has a parliamentary lobbying day scheduled for September 26, but MacDonald says he expects to have something substantive on pre-budget asks by the summer.
A survey has been sent to all participants gauging their feedback from the meeting and trying to determine reasonable deliverables in the four themes, looking at a mid-summer pre-budget window. “We’re building this airplane as it is going down the runway,’’ MacDonald says.