There is a common refrain that charities should demonstrate neutrality and avoid taking policy positions. Often this emerges from a reasonable fear of appearing to have a political agenda, which could lead to jeopardizing charitable status by violating advocacy laws. But refraining from advocacy precludes non-profit organizations from holding governments accountable for their role in the very issues charities seek to address.
As one of the lead fundraisers at The Stop, I provide strategic oversight of all communications and fundraising. While I believe in the transformative impact of our programs, I’m profoundly aware of the limitations of our work. To pursue our vision of a more connected society where the right to good food is upheld, our government needs to be held accountable for an insufficient social safety net that leads people to walk through our doors in the first place.
It’s important to note that individual charities are not the problem. The sectors’ reluctance to participate in public policy campaigning is understandable: navigating laws that stipulate what kind of advocacy charities can engage in is perplexing work and intimidates charities from calling for systemic change.
Most service providers in Canada’s charitable sector operate in an atmosphere of near-constant precarity. On top of possibly jeopardizing their charitable status, organizations also face the risk of reputational damage, eroding public trust, alienating donors, and draining their limited human resources when engaging in political debate.
The 2012 CRA audits of top environmental organizations continue to haunt the sector. Beginning under the Harper government, the CRA made an example of organizations that engaged in environmental advocacy efforts and challenged the federal government’s policy positions. Conspiratorial claims that foreign money was being funneled through charities to undermine the fossil fuel industry, perpetuated by researchers such as Vivian Krause, exacerbated the audits’ impact on the wider sector.
At the time of the audits, 10% of charities’ expenses could be spent on advocacy, and there was little clarity on what constituted an advocacy expense. The 10% rule has since been abolished and charities can now engage in unlimited nonpartisan public policy dialogue and development, providing it relates to advancing their mission.
The distinction between issue-based versus partisan advocacy is ambiguous: advocating for a specific policy change can easily be deemed as organizational endorsement of a candidate or party. In 2019, environmental charities were cautioned by the CRA about climate change advocacy, as it could be seen as partisan (due to the Peoples Party of Canada’s denial of climate change). This again served as a cautionary tale for organizations engaging in pertinent advocacy work. Advocacy laws may help maintain the public’s trust in the sector, but the legislation’s ambiguity and the CRA’s response to advocacy inhibit meaningful participation in public policy decision-making.
Raising money through private wealth for basic services that should be ensured through our social safety net feels absurd.
When I confront the reality of the work I do, I’m often disheartened. Raising money through private wealth for basic services that should be ensured through our social safety net feels absurd. Many of our donors share this sentiment and recognize they are subsidizing a lack of investment in social support. Living a dignified life with access to fresh food should not be a privilege for the wealthy; it should be the bare minimum for all.
In 2021, The Stop surveyed our service users to determine their top public policy priorities and used the results to inform our election advocacy efforts. We met with politicians, city staff and organizers, and nonprofits; we also sent letters to local representatives, distributed voting guides and hosted events where community members could meet electoral candidates. Our provincial election campaign focused on increasing social assistance rates, which has been proven to drastically reduce food bank usage. For the municipal election, we called for vacancy control.
While at times advocacy can feel futile, and in some ways performative, we know this aspect of our work is critical. We’ve been advised that it’s a long road, to join coalitions, and to accept incremental changes that these entrenched systems will allow. As a sector, we need to embrace our role at the intersection of public policy and local community needs, and build a world where our collective vision is realized: one where charities are no longer needed.
Written by our Development Manager, Marie-France Roche.
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