Public Policy: An important tool in the community foundation toolkit

Laws against drunk driving. The ban on Bisphenol A (BPA) in baby bottles. The creation of the federal Registered Disability Savings Plan. These are just a few examples of the ways that charities have played an important role in shaping Canadian laws, regulations, government spending decisions and other public policy measures at municipal, provincial and federal levels.

In each of these cases, charities and their partners recognized that the existing system was limiting — or even undermining — the positive impact of their work. They had deep knowledge, experience and relationships connected with the public policies in question, and they took intentional action to advocate for change, including through research, public awareness campaigns, communications with elected officials, direct grassroots action, legal challenges or many other approaches.

Why influence public policy? (“Is this really the role of a community foundation?”)

Charities — including community foundations — are well-positioned to advocate for change and shape public policy. We have unique knowledge and expertise, garnered through program delivery, research, Vital Signs and engagement with community. Charities are led by, or work closely with, people whose direct lived experience has been impacted by the outcomes of specific policy decisions. We hold relationships across sectors and are well-positioned to convene actors for dialogue. And as grantmakers, community foundations can support the expertise and leadership of other charities, as they engage in advocacy and seek to influence policy.

And if not us, then who? By law, if charities are explicitly dedicated to the “public good”, is it not our responsibility to look for ways to ensure that the decisions by public institutions are truly aligned with the needs of community members, including those whose voices are pushed to the margins? Is it not our role to ensure that laws, regulations and government decisions keep pace with the changing needs and realities of our communities?

We’ve seen many more areas where advocacy by charities has led to positive outcomes: regulations on tobacco; the ban on chemicals that deplete the ozone layer; models of mental health services for youth.

With these examples in mind, what happens when we consider local realities — like food security, housing affordability, equitable access to transportation, or unemployment — as the direct product of laws, regulations, and government decisions that can be changed? What is our responsibility to our communities to ensure that day-to-day support and leadership is accompanied by a commitment to deeper systems change? What could be possible if all charities — including community foundations — rallied our expertise, resources and relationships as advocates for the people and issues that we care most about?

What are the rules? (“Are we really allowed to do this?”)

Charities in Canada have always been permitted to engage in non-partisan public policy advocacy, albeit with limitations imposed by the Income Tax Act.

These limitations on non-partisan public policy activities have recently been removed. In December 2018, after years of dialogue (and advocacy!) about the importance of charities’ role in public policy engagement, the Government of Canada passed amendments to the Income Tax Act that removed all limitations on charities’ abilities to engage in non-partisan public policy advocacy activities. The Canada Revenue Agency has since published a draft guidance that offers a new name for these activities and suggests how the Act will be interpreted: ‘Public policy dialogue and development activities by charities’. The CRA is accepting feedback on that guidance until April 23, 2019. In the meantime, Miller Thomson has provided a helpful overview of the CRA guidance, and Imagine Canada, Philanthropic Foundations Canada and the Ontario Nonprofit Network have put together an FAQ, New Public Policy Rules for Charities.

An early read of the CRA guidance suggests that this new language offers important clarity and new space for public policy leadership by charities. Parts of the draft guidance will still benefit from further clarification, and CFC is working with other sector leaders to submit feedback to the CRA. What is clear, is that charities are now able to engage in ‘public policy development and dialogue activities’ without limit, so long as those activities further their charitable purpose and remain non-partisan.

For more

Early leaders in the movement

A number of community foundations have been engaged in public policy and advocacy for quite some time, and have rallied their community knowledge, Vital Signs, relationships, and grantmaking to shape local and provincial laws, regulations, and spending decisions.

  • Through their Vital Signs work, the County Community Foundation has identified food security and transportation as local priorities. The community foundation has rallied community members, partners, and local government  around a Collective Impact model committed to impact in these areas. In terms of both food security and transportation, this group of local actors is considering a number of pathways for impact including public policy changes at the municipal level and shifts to government spending decisions.
  • Vital Signs has also proven an important tool during elections periods. For example, during the municipal election cycle in 2018, the Community Foundation of the North Okanagan supported a volunteer citizen’s group who used the Vital Signs findings to develop a ‘Vernon Vital Signs Questionnaire‘. The questionnaire shared candidates’ responses on key public policy questions in Vernon, and was used to grow civic engagement in the election. In London, ON, the London Community Foundation partnered with the Urban League on a series of all candidates meetings leading up to the election, with one meeting for each of the 14 wards. The community foundation’s Vital Signs report was distributed at each meetings and some of the debate questions were framed around data in the report, ensuring that community priorities were front and center.  
  • The Vancouver Foundation has supported youth leaders in the creation and development of their own public policy efforts, through initiatives like Fostering Change, which included a letter-writing campaign and a candidates’ pledge that sought to reforming the B.C. foster care system. The new LEVEL Youth Policy Program (YPP) brings together 15-20 Indigenous and racialized immigrant and refugee youth from across B.C. to provide training to shape and advocate for public policy that addresses issues impacting their lives.

These early movers highlight the ways that community foundations can deepen the work of their community knowledge, convening, and grantmaking, by engaging the local community and decision-makers in systems change.

Keen to learn more about advocacy?

Tools and resources on charities’ involvement in public policy:

Resources specific to the new Income Tax Act language and CRA guidance:

Are you interested? Get in Touch!

Does your community foundation already engage in public policy leadership? Is this a new area that you’d like to learn more about? Do you see opportunities, obstacles, or particular public policy needs? Do you have opinions, questions, or feedback about the CRA’s new guidance on?

If so, we’d be keen to hear from you! Contact Laurel Carlton at lcarlton@communityfoundations.ca to learn more and connect with other community foundations interested in this work.

And finally, coming up next: ‘How Ready is your Community Foundation for Public Policy Leadership?’ (March 2019)

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