Active Philanthropy Requires Advocacy

Last week, during a team Zoom “5 à 7”, fresh from a lunchtime primer on the heavy concepts of Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, a question surfaced that offered an interesting opportunity for the team to get into a passionate discussion.

Why wasn’t the non-profit sector in Canada more engaged in advocacy?

It seemed like a no-brainer to the team that if we are to create the kind of “system change” that is responsible for many of the inequities facing the world, the social sector should be the loudest advocates around, voicing the urgent changes needed in public policy at the local, regional, and federal level.

Nonprofit advocacy vs lobbying

But it turns out that when people start talking about advocacy, lobbying often gets thrown into the conversation. There is a fine line that organizations are nervous to get near in the nonprofit sector. 

It’s all about the money and semantics. How a mission is defined, how grant conditions are worded, and what the purpose of an activity is, among many other criteria, all affect the tax-free status of a dollar and of an organization’s ability to receive that money. 

Since the majority of Canadian nonprofits operate with budgets under 250K, that tax-free dollar is a critical component to serving the many missions that uphold Canada’s long running reputation as a social democracy. Individual donors may or may not need that tax receipt (although they are rarely asked) – it really depends on their motivation for giving. But for foundations, corporate, or government donors, the nitty gritty of your activities and mission become the object of rather intense scrutiny since the tax-status and legality of their earmarked cash directly depends on it.

The danger zone 

It is understandable then, that advocacy might become dangerous if it jeopardizes potentially large sources of funding. It was indeed a very murky place to swim until 2019, when new legislation and guidance from the federal government was implemented on an aspect of charitable status; Public Policy Dialogue and Development Activities (PPDDA). 

Ironically, this change in the Income Tax Act did not come from pro-active politicians wanting nonprofits, who are undeniably the experts in serving the needs of marginalized populations, to have greater opportunities to shape public policy in a more equitable way. Change happened because of a lawsuit brought forth by an organization that claimed the Income Tax Act was basically muzzling nonprofits in exchange for their tax-free status – a clear infringement on their freedom of speech.

The Good News and the Bad News

This change should be good news for Canadian charities, but according to Hillary Pearson, Past President of Philanthropic Foundations Canada and a strategic advisor in the nonprofit sector, “many charities are still pretty averse to the risks of public advocacy and are worried about donor reactions. Generally foundations and donors stay out of policy work, believing that it is the job of governments to make policy by and large.

The group of charities explicitly advocating for policy change remains very small in Canada even if the law has been changed.”

We know that old habits are hard to break, especially when they become ingrained and part of doing business as usual. Becoming an engaged advocate for the underlying cause your mission currently stands on might seem like an impossible task given the already long list of day to day duties you are tackling for the benefit of your community.

But here is the elephant in the room nobody is addressing – if we are not working at eradicating the source of inequities on a systemic level then is the organization actually a cog in the machine that keeps us from attaining a sustainable and equitable world?

Are we part of the problem?

Shouldn’t we actively be working our way out of a job? Could that be the real purpose of the social sector? It turns out that believing we should take a stronger stand and that individual organizations, big and small, have a duty to be the authentic advocates for their cause does not make us naive utopian thinkers. There are already some amazing people out there working hard on moving philanthropy closer to advocacy.

Innovative and progressive funders do exist but they are far from mainstream.  A small number of private foundations are funding advocacy work or offering grants for training in advocacy. The Muttart Foundation believes that “if Canada’s voluntary sector is to be a full player in public policy, then it requires coordination, information, and assistance” and choses to fund umbrella organizations that advocate for the sector as a whole. If dedicated foundations like Max Bell, Gordon, McConnell, and Donner are looking at how advocacy can transform the social and environmental landscapes of Canada shouldn’t smaller organizations do their part in raising a public dialogue about the issues they know best?

There is an inherent power imbalance in the relationship with grant-makers and organizations that are on the receiving end of funding that encourages the status quo to continue. For organizations on the ground, beefing up their advocacy often entails an extra cost that is not attributable to programming and thus not funded by most grants that are almost always geared to direct services with measurable outcomes.

Diversifying the Way we Make an Impact

It is important to get comfortable with advocacy and realize that you already know part of the recipe for being a great advocate. Let’s take a look at some of the elements advocacy emcompasses:

  • Issue research and networking
  • Policy development and analysis
  • Litigation
  • Gauging public opinion (surveys + polling)
  • Community education and collaboration between organizations
  • Leadership development and training
  • Mobilization of your supporters and campaigns targeting specific issues that affect your community
  • Informing governments and public officials about the issues that matter
  • Strategic communications planning including the use of social media
  • Increase voter engagement
  • Lobbying for your charitable purpose or supporting those that are already doing it

Advocacy in philanthropy should be about diversifying the way we make an impact. It requires organizations to be bold and start a conversation with their supporters, be part of or create a public dialogue and inspire funders at the same time. Make a case for reluctant grantmakers by sharing the Philanthropic Foundations of Canada’s report, Funders Making Change: Engaging in Public Policy with them.

It is by speaking out and pointing to systemic causes that charities and their funders can become better advocates and influence the government to frame better policies that address the root causes to so many of today’s injustices.