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:
- Maytree’s archived Presentations from their Public Policy training sessions
- John Stapleton’s annual Policy Course
- Building Advocacy Strategies: Formal and Informal Challenges to Advocacy, and Promising Ways Forward a research paper commissioned by the Frontline Partners with Youth Network (FPYN) – which examines legal boundaries surrounding advocacy in charitable organizations.
- Maytree’s Five Good Ideas: Campaigning for Social Change with Dave Meslin – Meslin’s presentation addresses advocacy in the non-profit sector, creative public engagement and messaging to shift public opinion.
Ruth and Sandi
QUESTIONS FOR LEADERS:
- 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?