Yes You (Funders) Can!....Make Better Public Policy 3: Building Capacity

December 8, 2019
Hilary Pearson

In the first two pieces in this series on funders and public policy, I made the case for why funders should engage in public policy development, and I offered some examples of how Canadian funders are active. In this third blog, I argue for more foundation investment in developing public policy capacity for the Canadian charitable sector as a whole.

The sector, it has been said many times, is very diverse in size and type of organization, areas of focus and resources.  Does this mean the sector has no universal public policy framework?   No. There is one important framework, the one that comes with charitable status. From a public policy perspective, the charitable sector has one important framework: its relationship to the federal regulator, the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA). Every charity has to understand the framework created by the rules and regulations of the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA).  This is clearly defined and widely shared across the sector.  But there are other policy areas defined by needs that are shared: data, capital (financial and human) and technology.  Governments at federal and provincial levels understand that it is important to set policy frameworks for the business sector around data collection and dissemination, access to financial capital, policies for employment and conditions of work, and digital technology infrastructure.  What about the nonprofit sector?

What do we do to ensure that our sector’s needs for capital, data and technology are recognized in public policy frameworks? The sector must have intermediary or umbrella organizations that can act on its behalf: to provide collective action on rules and standards, to conduct research and act as thought leaders in policy development, to provide training and education in policy work, to gather intelligence and mobilize knowledge, and to advocate with policy-makers for policy changes and improvements.

In the absence of these kinds of organizations, the sector handicaps itself. Public policy doesn’t exist or does not develop in timely and relevant ways.  Needs aren’t identified and sector organizations are not collectively mobilized.

The good news is that we do have some of these organizations in Canada. At national level, we have Imagine Canada.  And across the country we have more provincial intermediaries focused on the policy needs of the charitable and non-profit sector, such as the Ontario Nonprofit Network, Pillar Nonprofit Network, Community Sector Councils in Nova Scotia, PEI, and Newfoundland and Labrador, and the nascent Alberta Nonprofit Network.

These network organizations are funded by some leading charitable foundations that have decided to invest in this sector capacity: Lawson Foundation, Muttart Foundation, the Atkinson Foundation, the Max Bell Foundation, RBC and Suncor Energy Foundations.  The McConnell Foundation has been a long-time supporter of sector intermediaries such as Imagine.  Other foundations choose to develop policy capacity and collective learning by providing funding for individual leaders or organizations. The Metcalf Foundation’s Leading and Learning Program is an example.  Two foundations have made a long-term investment in training individuals for public policy work: Max Bell and Maytree both run Public Policy Training Institutes for nonprofit leaders. And some of these foundations also invested in the research on sector policy issues conducted by the Mowat Centre NFP.

There is no doubt that this funding of intermediaries and networks has a leveraging effect.  Funding the web of support strengthens the sector as a whole.  Given this, it is surprising that there aren’t more charitable funders making a choice to build this infrastructure. The return on investment is clear. As this series of blogs has suggested, there is a compelling case for more charitable funder engagement in public policy.  Perhaps we will begin to see this rise in the coming decade as we turn the corner into the 2020s.

Reminder: You can find a description of strategies, information about the rules, and  stories about the practice of Canadian funders engaging in public policy in the 2019 guide Funders Making Change: Engaging in Public Policy.

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