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6 Tips for Outstanding Advocacy

Tuesday, February 23, 2016
Public Policy
Government Relations
Bernadette Johnson & Bill Schaper

A new federal government can mean a lot of things. We know that this government made commitments on issues that affect the sector: limitations on political activity and advocacy by charities, social finance and social innovation, and even the legal and regulatory framework under which we operate. 

In our meetings with cabinet members, MPs, and political staffers, it’s become apparent that a different approach to decision-making is going to put pressure on our sector, but also present us with real opportunities. Time and again, we’ve heard that the new government wants a new kind of partnership with charities and nonprofits – one where we provide comprehensive policy advice both informally and through formal mechanisms like advisory panels.

Our staff and volunteers see first-hand the effects of good and bad policy in communities and we are working to move broad sector policy goalposts forward. We are often the proverbial canary-in-the-mine when it comes to new and pressing issues in society. Without the advocacy of our sector, issues like impaired driving, smoking in the workplace, acid rain – to name just a few – would look very different today. 

We know that you are juggling a lot of priorities, and policy work is just one part of your job description. That being said, effective policy advocacy can be a game-changer in advancing your mission or cause. With that in mind, we’ve put together a few tips to help.

#6 Know the limits of how you can engage as a charity

Dealing directly with politicians and bureaucrats is NOT political activity, so don’t be concerned about reaching out and getting to know your MP. Where things can get tricky is if you decide to launch a public campaign to put pressure on the government – that might be political activity that you need to track and report. The CRA has guidance available on its website. If you’re spending a lot of time in private meetings with politicians (roughly one day a week  between you and other staff members), you’ll want to check whether you need to register as a lobbyist. 

#5 Prioritize your resources

Is the issue important enough to drop other things and devote real time and effort? Is this a problem that your organization is committed to address with federal policy? Are there other organizations working on the same issue? If so, and if interests align, it may make more sense to pool your efforts through an existing or ad hoc network or coalition. Point being, if you want to have an impact going the policy route, you will need to dedicate some bandwidth. 

#4 Don’t be afraid to approach bureaucrats and politicians

Many of them (a) have good motivations and (b) are looking for ways to make their mark. If you’re in an opposition riding, don’t assume you can’t make anything happen. Behind the scenes there are many close relationships between people from different parties. An opposition member can still get attention.

You also don’t need to wait until you need something to contact a government representative. Invite your local MP to fundraisers, BBQs, community events; they’re usually more than happy to attend. 

Cultivating the relationship is key. If they know and trust you, they are much more likely to be receptive and open-minded when you do come to approach them with an ask. 

#3 Back up your ask with facts 

Gather evidence of the particular need in question, and research showing how your ask will efficiently address this issue. Bonus if you can demonstrate demand for this solution - that this issue or ask has the interest and support of the public. 

Credibility is key. In order to remain a trusted partner with government, it’s a good idea to show you’ve done your homework. 

#2 Try to align your issue with the government’s narrative

What is their policy agenda? What kind of language do they use? (You’d be amazed how the choice of words you use to describe your issue can affect its appeal to different political parties!)  How does your issue fit into the government’s bigger picture? Will they be able to sell it to their constituents? Is the framing of your issue politically sensitive? And, finally, is this good timing in terms of external trends, media focus, and the government budget cycle? 

Try to find that win-win approach, make it easy for the government representative to get on board. 

#1 Don’t just present the problem, identify a solution

Develop a concrete “ask”. An ask is a policy solution to the problem you want to address. In considering this ask, you’ll need to think about the extent to which this ask will solve the problem - what is the reach with this particular policy proposal? Is it worth the time and effort and resources it will take for your organization or coalition to bring this to fruition?

The main take-away here is, if a politician asks “What do you want me to do about it?” - make sure you’ve got an idea they can steal!

Finally, and above all, don’t be intimidated! Talking to government isn’t an arcane science, at the end of the day, they’re people like you and they really are trying to make the country a better place. Don’t be afraid to learn from mistakes and share lessons with each other. Be genuine, be open, and don’t be afraid to take chances. You might be surprised at how much you can get done.


About the Authors

Bernadette Johnson

Bernadette Johnson is our Manager of Public Policy. She has an MA in Conflict Studies and a Master’s in Philanthropy and Nonprofit Leadership. She’s worked in the sector in Rwanda, here as an MP staffer, as a research consultant for Indigenous Affairs, and as a research coordinator for Canada’s TRC. Current projects include a hobby social enterprise and research on impact investing.

Bill Schaper

Bill Schaper is the Director of Public Policy in Imagine Canada’s Ottawa office. In past lives he was a political staffer on Parliament Hill, the senior policy advisor to a federal cabinet minister, a policy analyst and GR practitioner for universities, an independent policy consultant, and a communications specialist for the United Kingdom’s Auditor General.

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