In addition to delivering vital programs and services, charitable organizations can play a role in advocating for the broader issues affecting the people they serve – to influence change at a systemic level in society. While this presents an exciting and significant opportunity for charities, it can be daunting for many organizations leaving them unsure of where to start.
While every charity is different, there are some core steps you can take to build your organization’s advocacy capacity at a governance level, especially if you’re starting from scratch. By following these five steps, your organization can build a strong knowledge base and governance framework so that you can responsibly and confidently advocate for your cause.
1. Know the rules
Before you do anything, familiarize yourself with the rules. In Canada, the federal government believes that charities are a critical source of knowledge and information on how government policies may affect people’s lives, and believe they should contribute to policy development. However, there are some limits to what a charity can do in this realm. The federal government has established a set of rules - CRA Policy Statement CPS-022, which is binding as part of the Income Tax Act – and these rules govern how charities in Canada can engage in advocacy activities. (Note: there may be progressive changes coming to these regulations – stay tuned).
Beyond CRA’s guidelines, organizations also need to consult the lobbying rules that are in place federally, provincially/territorially, and sometimes even municipally. Gaining a clear understanding of the regulations, and how they pertain to your organization, is a critical first step in ensuring that any advocacy is both effective and responsible. If necessary, you can also seek legal counsel from charity law experts on what the regulations mean in your organization’s specific context.
2. Assess the gaps
Once you have a strong handle on the regulations, it helps to get a good sense of where your organization currently is, in relation to where it needs to be, in order to effectively and responsibly advocate. To do this, conduct a gap analysis that looks at your organization’s current state and future state, and what’s needed to bridge any gaps (you may also want to do some additional research, including speaking to other organizations). For example, a gap could be that your organization doesn’t have an advocacy policy, or that your Board of Directors doesn’t have a consistent understanding of what advocacy even is. Once you’ve analyzed the gaps, you can get started on bridging them.
3. Define the core principles
To ensure advocacy activities are governed in a clear and consistent manner, it’s useful to develop an advocacy policy for your organization. Consider a principles-based policy – something that is broad enough to provide clear parameters, but not overly prescriptive that it makes it difficult to implement. Key components of an advocacy policy include the purpose (make it empowering!), a definition of advocacy specific to your organization, how the policy will be applied across the organization, and most importantly the policy statements – the crux of what’s allowable, or not. Overall, you want an advocacy policy to be clear, up-to-date and empowering so that it’s easier for your organization to advocate, and to do so responsibly and effectively.
4. Make it accessible
While having a governance policy is important, it’s helpful to also have operational guidelines that explain the policy in lay terms (not legal jargon!) with practical examples. Break down the core concepts of the policy to make it accessible, understandable and empowering for staff and volunteers across your organization – after all, you want a policy that will make it easier to advocate, not harder. Having a few key overarching principles along with practical examples goes a long way. For example, when explaining that all activities must be non-partisan or multi-partisan, include practical tips for how to make sure an advocacy activity is designed in line with the policy and guidelines, and real-life examples that illustrate activities that are both appropriate and not.
5. Educate, educate, educate
Even when it’s still a work in progress, take every opportunity to educate stakeholders along the way. Because the regulations aren’t always intuitive, it helps to bring everyone into the fold early – and continuously – so that the knowledge can start to sink in across your organization. This way, by the time the policy and guidelines are in place, key stakeholders are already grounded in the content. Even after the fact, make an effort to ensure the information remains top-of-mind among those who need to follow the policy for their work, particularly as new people join your organization. In addition to delivering presentations, you can develop hands-on workshops for small groups of staff and volunteers so they can learn how to apply the policy and guidelines by working through real world scenarios.
Charities have an important role to play in public policy development, and in shaping the social, economic and political development of Canadian communities. By taking the time to lay a strong governance foundation and build a common understanding of advocacy, you can equip your organization to effectively influence positive change in society. In addition to the work of individual organizations, there are sector-wide strategies underway to ensure that charities and nonprofits operate in a supportive policy environment.
Stay connected to Imagine Canada to keep up-to-date on the critical work it’s doing. Join its efforts to strengthen the charitable sector’s seat at the public policy table.
About the Author
Myna Kota is Senior Manager, Advocacy and Girl Engagement at Girl Guides of Canada where she has played a leadership role in establishing how Girl Guides can advocate for issues impacting girls, as well as empower girls themselves to advocate for a better world. Myna is a member of Imagine Canada’s Sector Pulse and can be found on Twitter @MynaKota.
Guest contributions represent the personal opinions and insights of the authors and may not reflect the views or opinions of Imagine Canada.