Is Advocacy Heating Up – in the Face of a Chill?

Ironically, at a time when the Harper government seems to be trying to increase the ‘chill’ around non-profit advocacy by increasing funding to the Canada Revenue Agency to enable them to audit more charities, advocacy seems to be heating up. The explanation may be the austerity agenda that is putting the squeeze on agency budgets at a time when demand for services has been increasing.

Over the last couple of years we’ve noticed an increasing number of groups from different sectors – youth, child care, developmental services, and food – coming together to explore advocacy options. In most cases the groups recognize there is an advocacy vacuum; and individual organizations recognize there is power in numbers – the value of coalitions.

The advocacy chill has been building over the years, fuelled in part by organizations’ concerns about overstepping boundaries leading to loss of charitable status. As a result many organizations have tended to focus on service delivery, leaving advocacy to others. While some sectors have an association that does this work, associations are not always effective. In addition, funding for advocacy work is hard to come by although some foundations have stepped up to the plate.

In Forces for Good (a highly recommended read), authors Crutchfield and McLeod Grant outline six practices of highly effective non-profit organizations. They discovered that ALL of the high-impact organizations they studied at some point in their evolution engaged the ‘virtuous cycle’ which combines service and advocacy work. Some started with advocacy and later added services while others did the reverse; a few engaged in both from the start. Organizations that provide direct services tend to have the best information about a community, its needs, and what works. Organizations can help amplify the voices of those they serve, which may not otherwise be heard. These are critical inputs to public policy development. And good public policy is important in growing services and designing systems that work.

Despite the growing interest in advocacy – at a leadership and staff level, the lack of engagement in advocacy means there is a lack of skills and knowledge. Sean Moore has written about the need for infrastructure to build the sector’s capacity. Some resources for organizations and individuals interested in learning more:

Ruth and Sandi


  • In the current environment, what are the risks of engaging in, vs. not engaging in, advocacy?
  • How can advocacy at a public policy level expand your services and make them more effective?
  • For those that recognize the need for advocacy – who could you align yourselves with?

Join me at the Tools 2012 Conference

Iler Campbell and Prentice Yates & Clark are once again sponsoring their one-day Tools conference for staff and board members from non-profits, charities, co-ops and community groups. The law and accounting firms are committed to providing participants (many of whom are client agencies) with an opportunity to learn from experts on a variety of topics and exchange information with each other.

Over the years, I have presented on different topics at the conference. The audience tends to be diverse, friendly and open to learning. It’s been a great way for individuals to refresh their thinking by getting exposed to practical information and training. Participants also enjoy the opportunity to connect with others from their own and other fields.

This year I am presenting a session on:

Shared and Separated Leadership between Board and ED: Navigating the boundary                                                                                                                     We continue to debate and describe the boundary between the board and the executive director in different ways: oversight vs. operational, direction vs. implementation, policy vs. practice. The general principles are easy to state but challenging to honour. The session will focus on practical strategies for establishing the right conditions, addressing the inevitable tensions and making the Board-ED relationship work.

At the Tools Conference this year there are 12 workshops (you choose four when you register) and an inspiring keynote speaker who will share stories and strategies for engaging youth. Cost of $180 per person includes breakfast, lunch and great networking at the end-of-day reception.

The one-day conference is being held at Oakham House on the Ryerson University campus in downtown Toronto on November 22, 2012. Check it out!

Hope to see you there – Ruth.

Questions for leaders:

  • What does it take to engage in shared leadership while respecting the separate duties and responsibilities of Board and ED?
  • How do we navigate a fuzzy boundary that shifts in different circumstances (e.g. new ED, mature organization, small agency)?

Shifting the Non-profit Sector Narrative

I attended the Ontario Non-profit Network’s (ONN) 2012 Conference ‘Policy to Practice’ in late September. Tonya Surman of ONN updated participants on the Network’s work in relation to five policy priorities identified 3 years ago*. ONN is playing an important role in changing the narrative about the sector and shifting the relationship between the sector and the Ontario government.

We can’t underestimate the power of language to shift perspectives. A number of speakers commented on the disservice we do when we define the sector by what it’s not – i.e. ‘not-for-profit’, ‘non-governmental’. Tonya Surman highlighted some of ONN’s efforts to put the sector on a more equal footing with government by redefining the sector as: “solution innovators”, “community assets”, “community stewards”.

MPP Charles Sousa, from the Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration offered opening remarks that reflected greater government appreciation for the sector – he was well-informed about the size of the sector (e.g. representing $50 billion and 15% of jobs) and spoke of the sector as a ‘third pillar’ supporting Ontario’s society, on the front lines of public service. Assistant Deputy Minister Katherine Hewson spoke about how the provincial government’s OPEN for Business Program, which was initially designed to make government easier and more responsive to business and put clients at the centre of services, was expanded to include the non-profit sector. She praised ONN’s attitude of collaboration and interest in working together with government to find solutions.


Questions for leaders:

  • Do the words you use when you talk about your work emphasize solutions and assets, or deficits?
  • Do you offer compelling solutions when engaging with government partners?

*ONN priorities

  1. Ontario Not-for-Profit Corporations Act – influencing the content of the Act (note: conversations continue as proclamation has been delayed until July 1, 2013)
  2. Sale of Surplus Public Lands – expanding the sector’s ability to express interest in the purchase of public lands before they go on the wider market
  3. Infrastructure Ontario’s Loan Program – gaining access to government’s low rate capital financing for non-profit organizations (NPOs)
  4. Police Record Checks Process – seeking greater clarity around process requirements to lessen the burden on NPOs
  5. Procurement and Vendor of Record – gaining access to public procurement program discounts for NPOs