Climb aboard the “A” Train

The A TrainAdvocacy got a bad rap under the Harper government. The CRA’s audits of charities cast a chill on those voicing opinions at odds with the federal government. Although only one charity had its status revoked due to political activity (audits are ongoing), the prospect of an audit served to dampen dissent. Many, but not all charities, backed away from the advocacy work that is critical to systems change. The recent change at the federal level suggests that times are changing and the chill is lifting (see Time to Engage). We think it’s time to climb aboard the “A” train.

Community voices matter and CRA’s policy on political activities acknowledges that charities have a legitimate role to play in public policy, “Through their dedicated delivery of essential programs, many charities have acquired a wealth of knowledge about how government policies affect people’s lives.”. Furthermore, non-profit organizations’ advocacy efforts have translated into significant progress on social issues including reductions in drinking and driving (MADD – Mothers Against Drunk Driving); reductions in smoking (Cancer Care Ontario); and the protection of environmentally sensitive landscapes (CPAWS – Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society).

Combining Service + Advocacy

Forces for Good BookIn Forces for Good, authors Crutchfield and McLeod Grant identify six practices of high-impact nonprofit organizations. All twelve of the organizations they identified as having created real social change engage in service delivery and advocacy. This was true of organizations that began by focusing only on services, as well as for organizations that started out focusing on advocacy work. The more organizations incorporated both functions in their strategy, the greater impact they achieved.

The authors characterize the combination as a virtuous cycle. Service delivery enables organizations to implement ideas and work closely with communities on the ground. Through this work organizations acquire an understanding of needs, as well as an appreciation of how existing policies inhibit progress and what new policies might accelerate it. This in-depth knowledge of communities and issues is something policy makers may lack. Policy makers may also lack insight into the unintended consequences of existing policies and programs, and what kinds of new policies might resolve the challenges they’re charged with addressing.

Canadian charities are permitted to engage in various forms of advocacy and to spend up to 10% of their resources on “political activities” that include a call to action (see Definitions below). Even charities viewed as prominent advocates rarely dedicate more than 5% of their resources*; of a potential spend of $20 billion, Canada’s nearly 86,000 charities reportedly spent $21 million (2012) or just over 1%**. If advocacy is key to impact, this is a significant missed opportunity.

Stories from the Field

“Successful advocacy is most often the result of a medium-to-long-term, focused, sustained and collaborative approach to advocacy” – Sean Moore.

Advocacy is a long game that requires long-term thinking and commitment. Progress can be slow and is not always easy to measure.

The Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of one organization we have worked with (Participation House Support Services, London and Area) spends significant time building relationships with government and others working in the developmental and health services sectors. His board supports this investment of time and effort. The CEO’s relationships with decision-makers are characterized by ongoing information exchange and feedback on policies and programs introduced by government. These conversations have built trust, and the CEO is able to work with others in community services to effect policy changes and build solutions. The organization’s board members are also engaged in conversation with government and community. Many are long-term members who are deeply familiar with the issues faced by the organization’s community. Those in government have welcomed the opportunity to understand board member perspectives as senior volunteers. Over the last few years the agency has supported individuals interested in self-advocacy, something that has enhanced individuals’ ability to share ideas and concerns inside and outside the organization.

In my thesis I focused on Sustain Ontario’s efforts to influence provincial food policy over a period of several years. The cross-sectoral alliance engaged in government relations and crafted policy solutions for government’s consideration. In part because they cultivated relationships with members of all parties, their efforts to share information, ideas, and policy solutions were given consideration by policy makers. Some of their ideas were incorporated into Ontario’s Local Food Act.

The Board’s Role in Advocacy

Although the Board Chair tends to be the primary spokesperson, board members can also lend their energy and expertise to an organization’s advocacy efforts by:

  • Giving permission: as the board did with the CEO above. This might extend to supporting investments in advocacy capacity building for the organization and its clients.
  • Adopting a systems mindset: considering the root causes impacting the organization’s work and all those invested in resolving the issue.
  • Amplifying voice: sharing issues and stories with stakeholders outside the organization.
  • Engaging decision makers: building relationships with local, provincial and federal politicians to better understand their priorities, values and timelines. Sharing information and possible solutions.
  • Identifying windows of opportunity: supporting the organization in crafting a timely and strategic response to an event that focuses attention on client or organizational issues.


What critical conversations and questions do boards need to engage in related to advocacy? The sample questions below are crafted for organizations that are just starting out, and those that are already actively engaged in, advocacy efforts.

Fiduciary (oversight) Strategic (insight) Generative (foresight)
  • As a charitable organization what issues CAN we advocate for?
  • What percentage of our resources are we investing in advocacy? Are we reporting these correctly?
  • How might we measure the return on this investment?
  • What specific issues might we advocate for that would make the biggest difference for our community and cause?
  • What issues related to our cause are receiving significant public attention and how could we use that attention to expand awareness and/or get our issue on government’s agenda?
  • What do we understand about these issues based on our programs/services /clients that would enrich the current discussion?
  • How might we support our community in speaking out?
  • How is limited attention to advocacy a disservice to those we serve?
  • What non-traditional ‘allies’ in the sector, in business, and government might be interested in working with us? What networks do board members have that would help us connect?
  • What bold goal might incent others to act?


Advocacy: CRA defines advocacy as demonstrated support for a cause or particular point of view. Advocacy activities may include public awareness campaigns, a representation to an elected representative or public official, participating in a policy development working group, among other examples. See also the link to CRA resource below.

  • This might involve: supporting, pleading, or defending a cause; expressing your views to create a shift in the environment, mobilize resources, change public opinion, or influence someone’s perception or understanding of an issue. CRA defines three categories of advocacy: unrestricted, limited and prohibited.
  • Unrestricted: charitable activities relating to and supporting the organization’s charitable purposes – e.g. public awareness campaigns, meeting with decision-makers
  • Limited: this includes political activities such as a ‘call to action’. Charities can devote up to 10% of their resources. These activities must be non-partisan and connectedto charitable purpose. Charities must declare these expenditures in their T3010 forms.
  • Prohibited: partisan political activities – e.g. directly or indirectly supporting a candidate

Lobbying: to undertake activities aimed at elected and/or non-elected government officials to influence them toward a desired action.

Public Policy: the intentions, decisions or actions of government. Public policy sets out the “what and how” of something that is to be done and may be expressed through laws, regulations, procedures or expenditures.

Government Relations: to monitor government actions or build relationships with elected and/or non-elected officials in order to increase their awareness about one’s cause and organization.

Sandi Trillo (lead author) and Ruth Armstrong, VISION Management Services

Recommended resources and references

Charity Case: How the Nonprofit Community Can Stand Up For Itself and Really Change the World. Dan Pallotta, 2012. And TED Talk: The way we think about charity is dead wrong.

CRA Resources for Charities About Political Activities

“Creating better public policy: the roles of Canadian charities”. Allan Northcott. The Philanthropist, Vol. 25.4. 2014

Forces for Good, Revised and Updated: The Six Practices of High-Impact Nonprofits. Leslie R. Crutchfield and Heather McLeod Grant, 2012

“Influencing public policy: Rules for charities engaging in advocacy. Calgary Chamber of Voluntary Organizations. Issue 7, 2009

**Political activity by registered charities in Canada. Elson, Kobrinsky, Marshall and Millan. Government of Canada presentation. February 1, 2014.

“Public Policy and the nonprofit sector” Susan Carter, The Philanthropist. Volume 23.4. 2011.

Rebalancing society: Radical renewal beyond left, right and centre” (PDF). Henry Mintzberg, self-published, 2015.

“Secret of Scale – how powerful civic organizations like the NRA and AARP build membership, make money and sway public policy”. Peter Murray. Stanford Social Innovation Reviews, Fall 2013.

*Stephen Harper’s CRA: Selective audits, “Political” activity, and right-leaning charities. Broadbent Institute, October 2014.

Tools for Radical Democracy: How to Organize for Power in Your Community. Joan Minieri, Paul Getsos. Jossey-Bass, 2007.


Time to Engage – takeaways from ONN’s 2015 Conference: Nonprofit Driven

This year’s Ontario Nonprofit Network (ONN) conference focused on opportunities forParliament_clock Policy, Leadership and Action. Three speakers issued challenges to the sector and instilled a sense of optimism about the role non-profits can play in Canada’s democracy. The federal election outcome certainly contributed to that optimism – it’s time to engage!

Rick Cohen, national correspondent with the Nonprofit Quarterly, delivered the conference’s opening keynote speech. Based on his observations south of the border he suggested that nonprofit sector organizations share a common mission: strengthening democracy. Nonprofit agencies closely connected to different communities are well-positioned to give voice to their communities and amplify their challenges and interests. Cohen noted that in the absence of rapid responses to community issues from organizations, social movements like Black Lives Matter have stepped in.

Engagement_peopleJohn Wright, Senior VP and Managing Director at Ipsos, helped participants consider the implications of the new Liberal majority government under the leadership of Prime Minister-designate Justin Trudeau. He highlighted messages Trudeau relayed in his first post-election media conference where he emphasized a commitment to greater openness and transparency, and to changing the ‘tone’ in government. Throughout the campaign, and in the post-election period, Trudeau has indicated he welcomes greater public engagement in government. Wright expects the ‘chill’ many non-profits experienced under the Harper government to change. He suggested non-profit leaders should take Trudeau up on his offer by reaching out to new MPs and offering to assist them in getting up to speed on issues. Wright reinforced that organizations still need to stay in touch with non-Liberals over the next few years.

Professor Henry Mintzberg closed the session on a somewhat less upbeat tone. He shared the essence of his most recent publication, “Rebalancing Society – Radical renewal beyond left, right and center”, a topic he’s been mulling over since 1991. Mintzberg suggested a better balance between the public, private and ‘plural’ (his proposed term for organizations in the third or civil society sectors) sectors is needed. Those in the private sector that benefit most from imbalance, although well-organized compared to those in the plural sector, are unlikely to implement the kinds of broad systemic solutions required. In contrast, those in the plural sector who are closest to citizens are in the best position to work across sectors to restore balance and fix broken democratic processes. He challenged the non-profit sector to work collectively to address the growing imbalance in Canadian society.









Sandi Trillo, VISION Management Services

Recommended resources and references

Forces for Good (2012): Authors Leslie R. Crutchfield and Heather McLeod Grant have identified 6 practices high impact non-profit organizations use to achieve extraordinary results. One includes advocating AND serving. The practices reflect their finding that greatness includes working outside the boundaries of an organization – with government, business, individuals and nonprofit networks.

Maclean’s interactive Visualization of Canada’s 42nd Parliament:

Rebalancing Society – Radical renewal beyond left, right and center (2015) (PDF). Free download.

Samara-ONN Infographic (PDF): an illustration of how a broken democracy impacts communities and how non-profits have a role to play as bridge between communities and government to create a more vibrant democracy.

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?