Food insecurity, education, and climate change are just a few examples of social issues for which Canada’s nonprofit and charitable sector provides essential support and services. Yet this sector has no representative entity in the federal government. As such, one of Imagine Canada’s key policy priorities is to work with the sector, elected officials and bureaucrats to establish a “Home in Government” for the nonprofit and charitable sector.
In pursuit of reciprocal learning, this summer we engaged with stakeholders across the country to source candid views regarding a home in government for the nonprofit and charitable sector. These learnings emphasize the need for meaningful engagement and participation from the breadth and diversity of the sector in determining the mandate and structure of a potential home in government. In this post, we discuss key insights drawn from our conversations with charities and nonprofits spanning various sub-sectors. We believe these perspectives are crucial and will help us shape this file in terms of policy, research and advocacy.
Currently, an organization’s relationship with the federal government is entirely reliant on their capacity and resources - such that smaller, equity-seeking organizations’ voices can be sidelined
Currently, the sector’s relationship with the government seems to be ad-hoc and driven by their core missions. Several government departments, offices, and ministries provide services to nonprofits. As a result, many organizations don’t know where to go for support or who to ask when they have a question. Since there is no clear government department or ministry to turn to, groups with time, resources, and connections are often the only organizations able to build fruitful relationships with the federal government. As noted by Robyn Hoogendam and Lise Martin of Women’s Shelters Canada, the government often only funds and engages with [larger] organizations that know how to speak “government language”, resulting in a lack of knowledge within the federal government of the skills and expertise provided by small- and medium-sized organizations in the sector.
Larger organizations may have the capacity to prioritize and fund their own government relations teams; however smaller organizations may only have enough resources to prioritize their day-to-day operations. It is often equity-seeking groups like Black-serving and Black-led organizations that are consistently underfunded1, and as a result may not have the capacity to focus on government relations.
The status quo means that the relationships between the nonprofit sector and the federal government mostly lie within large, well-funded, national, white-led organizations, while the expertise and lived experience of smaller, grassroots organizations can go untapped. An ideal home in government would allow the potential of these smaller groups to be harnessed.
Many of our interviewees mentioned that relations between their respective organizations and the federal government strengthened due to the pandemic. This demonstrates the government’s blossoming understanding of the crucial role played by our sector. We must keep this momentum going.
The sector wants a home centered on equity, policy, and connection-building
So what do organizations in the nonprofit sector hope to gain from a home in government? From our conversations, it is clear that it must be accessible and equitable. Organizations of all sizes, sub-sectors, corporate structures (i.e. not-for-profit, charitable and unincorporated grassroots) and organizational compositions must have access to this entity. A home in government for the sector needs to be able to provide as much value to small, grassroots and volunteer-led organizations as it does for large, national organizations.
There was general consensus among those we spoke to that the home in government should have a public policy focus. It should make supportive policy related to issues such as funding, the nonprofit sector labour force, and social enterprise activity. Anita Khanna, National Director of United Way Canada, noted that the sector needs a home in government that can ensure, in partnership with Statistics Canada, that more and better data about the sector is collected. Better data will allow a home in government to increase awareness within the federal government about the vital contributions, value, and operations of nonprofits and charities from coast to coast to coast. Improved data for the sector can support evidence-based policy making to further support the sector’s ability to serve community members.
Furthermore, interviewees expressed that a home in government for the sector must be able to play a critical connector and relationship-building role between organizations seeking support and various other federal bodies including, but not limited to, the Department of Finance, Global Affairs Canada, the Treasury Board Secretariat, and Employment and Social Development Canada. It was insisted that a home in government for the sector should add and streamline, not take away or add unnecessary red tape to any of the sector’s current touchpoints with the federal government.
Concerns regarding a home in government: Authority, Longevity, and Equity
Despite substantial support for a home in government, stakeholders in the sector voiced the following concerns:
Across our conversations, interviewees voiced concerns regarding the authority of a home in government. As one interviewee mentioned, “efforts to establish a home in government for the sector will be close to futile if we are not able to ensure that the entity has adequate authority to carry out its mandate successfully”. Those we spoke to were weary of a home in government announcement that doesn’t translate into action, or of a home in government that is just a rebranding of pre-existing, limited measures. A home in government should have a clear mandate and take meaningful action to strengthen and serve the nonprofit and charitable sector.
In a similar vein, the entity needs longevity and permanency to fulfill its mandate – its existence, mission, and authority should not be threatened by changes in government, cabinet shuffles or changes to political priorities.
A notable undercurrent to most of our conversations was the need to ensure that equity is at the forefront of any home in government’s structure and mandate. As the sector moves forward on this file, it has a responsibility to consult with, listen to and centre equity-seeking groups so that the home in government meaningfully serves them. For example, Indigenous organizations have long experienced systemic racism and discrimination in their relationships with the federal government. This means that some are reasonably apprehensive about the creation of a home in government for the sector. Their concerns emphasize the need to think critically about how we can integrate a diversity of perspectives and lived experiences into this file moving forward to ensure that equity considerations are meaningfully addressed.
Michael Toye from CCEDNet noted that it’s problematic to organize around legal structures (i.e CRA registered charitable status) that have an exclusionary and colonial history. When developing proposals for the mandate of a home in government, the sector should instead focus on creating an entity that serves public benefit, social impact organizations. We need to create mechanisms that enable inclusion, empowerment and innovation, rather than reinforcing historic and structural inequities.
Carelle Mang-Benza of Cooperation Canada emphasized that equitable access to the home in government is crucial, so that it is not exclusively the same well-resourced and well-connected organizations who are heard.
Moving forward – What’s Next?
The government expressed support for the creation of a home in government in its response to the 2019 Senate Charities Report. In our conversations with the sector, we overwhelmingly heard that in order to capitalize on this momentum within the federal government, the sector needs to have important discussions about the role, structure and mandate of a home so that we are prepared to bring proposals forward to the federal government. Increasing sector engagement will require spreading awareness about the issue, having conversations and debates about key questions, and working through concerns with the sector and government counterparts. By working together, we can build cohesion around the key aspects of a home in government. A home in government that takes into account many diverse perspectives and concerns will be stronger and more impactful.
Note: The Imagine Canada Public Policy Team has interviewed 15 organizations and experts and received comments by email from 6 others so far regarding the Home in Government policy file in summer of 2023. We’re continuing to gather insight, so if you would like to provide us with your thoughts, please get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org.