The Advocacy Riddle
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.
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.
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.”