Elections are key opportunities for community foundations and other organizations to build relationships with government, grow awareness about issues that matter and advocate for solutions to deep-rooted community challenges. Elections also offer an important moment to build understanding about the vital role that your organization plays in the community.
This fall, Canadians will go to the polls from coast to coast to coast.
How will you seize the electoral moment?
A few resources
Check out these great resources on ways to have impact during election periods:
- Election Toolkit: A guide for nonprofits to meaningfully engage in elections by the Ontario Nonprofit Network
- Election Readiness Toolkit Manual by Apathy is Boring
- How Government Works by the Maytree Foundation
- Who Does What? Federal, Provincial and Municipal Responsibilities by Civix
Tips for electoral engagement
As you consider those resources, here are five top tips to keep in mind:
Building relationships early
The election period is the perfect time to build relationships, as candidates will be open to connecting with and learning from community leaders. Invite candidates or senior campaign staff to a meeting, to attend a Vital Conversation or Vital Signs launch or to experience your impact through a site visit. Research the backgrounds of candidates and public officials, including their personal and family histories, connections and priorities. What drives each candidate, and what kind of outreach will resonate with them?
There’s no need to wait to see who’s elected — by starting before an election date, you’ll already have opened the door for ongoing dialogue once the government has been formed.
Tip: Keep it nonpartisan! When conducting outreach or issuing invitations, be sure to reach out to all candidates. When inviting candidates to an event, be clear that the event will go forward if at least two candidates attend. Elections BC has put together a great video on being nonpartisan here.
Get focused on what matters most
If you had one ‘ask’ for a new government, what would it be? Pick one or two priority areas — like those identified in your Vital Signs work — and design a strategy with tactics that will forward your ask, whether by connecting with candidates directly, raising awareness through traditional media, or hosting a Vital Conversation for dialogue. The ONN Elections Toolkit has great advice on how to strategize once you’ve identified your ask.
Focus on issues that are core priorities for the community, rather than ‘growing candidates’ knowledge about your organization’. By demonstrating your expertise and commitment to issues that matter most to the community, you’ll achieve that goal anyway.
Tip: Choose an issue relevant to the level of government. Civix has put together this helpful overview of the responsibilities of federal, provincial and municipal governments in Canada.
Share your community knowledge (and your Vital Signs!)
During an election, candidates are bombarded with asks from all directions. Establish your organization as a professional, trusted, expert partner by sharing research and stories about your priority areas. An election year is the perfect opportunity to launch your Vital Signs work, host a Vital Conversation or share briefs or reports to spark conversation about your priority areas.
Tip: Candidates may be interested in being present at your Vital Signs launch event, or during Vital Conversations, as they can be seen as an opportunity to speak to the community and media. Keep it nonpartisan by inviting all candidates.
Go for quality over quantity
Your organization has many options in terms of tactics for influence during an election period: holding individual meetings with candidates, hosting an event, sharing Vital Signs findings, writing a letter, publishing an op-ed, creating a buzz on social media — the list goes on. Consider your capacity and think quality over quantity: a few in-person meetings or a really effective Vital Conversation attended by candidates will have a greater impact than 25 social media posts or a canned letter.
Tip: Activate your networks. The more community members that collaborate on an event or issue, the more likely that a specific ask will gain traction with candidates and public officials as an “election issue”. Include other community organizations and leaders to extend your capacity and grow the tactics and reach of your work.
Learn the rules and stay nonpartisan
Charities and nonprofits are an important part of Canadian democracy. Don’t be intimidated by the rules and regulations — get informed so that you can play your leadership role! There are 3 key areas to consider when playing within the rules:
a) Lobbyist Acts (federal, and in most provinces)
The definition of lobbying is “activities intended to influence a public office holder with respect to changes to legislation, regulations, programs, privatization and awarding of grants, contributions or financial benefits.” If your organization has paid staff that are spending time on influencing government, you may need to track and register the number of hours spent on these activities.
If your organization is run exclusively by volunteers, there is no need to register.
b) Canada Revenue Agency’s Guidance on Political Activities
The CRA divides charities’ activities into three categories. Note that only partisan activities are prohibited — the rest are important activities for charities to achieve impact:
i) Charitable activities: Many activities that you will conduct during an election period are considered regular, charitable activities, like sending a Vital Signs report or other research to all candidates. These are allowed without limit.
ii) Political activities: The CRA defines political activity as “a call to political action”, including encouraging the public to contact a public official in support of the charity’s position. Political activity must relate to a charity’s purpose, and these activities are allowed up to 10 per cent of a charities resources (endowments included).
NOTE: Canada Without Poverty v. AG Canada and a follow-up appeal (2018) seek to clarify these limits on political activity. In the meantime, we recommend that all charities continue to follow the existing CRA guidance. Check with Imagine Canada for news updates on this case.
iii) Partisan activities: These are the direct or indirect promotion or opposition of a political candidate or party, which could include supporting a position taken by a political candidate, criticizing a candidate or inviting only select candidates to an event. Partisan activities are strictly prohibited. Again, Elections BC has put together a great video on being nonpartisan here.
c) Election finance laws
Some provinces have election finance laws that may implicate your organization if you pay for public content like advertising that highlights a specific position. Ontario’s Election Finances Act is an example (here’s an analysis of the Election Finances Act by the Ontario Nonprofit Network, and why it might matter to you.
We’d love to hear from you.
For questions about engaging with elections or public policy more broadly, contact Laurel Carlton, Director, Strategic Initiatives at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For questions about Vital Signs, reach out to Alison Sidney, Coordinator, Strategic Initiatives at email@example.com.