Why Advocacy Matters: The Crucial Role that Nonprofits Play

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By Lina Khatib, CCVO Policy Analyst

Nonprofits Vote: Albertans Go to the Polls in 2019

As noted in a previous post, CCVO is rolling out an election toolkit to provide nonprofits with resources, tools and information to engage in policy advocacy in the upcoming provincial election. The date of the election is not yet released, but will need to be called by the end of May 2019. The full toolkit will be published in the new year. Please follow the CCVO blog as we release installments of the toolkit to help you engage in the provincial election.

The nonprofit sector contributes significantly to society, the economy, and democratic participation – as such, the potential political influence of the sector should not be underestimated (see our previous post: Why Nonprofits Matter). Nonetheless, we live in a world of budget and resource limitations, differing opinions and conflicting priorities. Engaging in advocacy is an opportunity for nonprofits to share their priorities with the public, represent communities, advance policies, and promote funding of meaningful objectives.


What is Advocacy?

Advocacy is an activity performed by an individual or group that aims to influence decisions within political, economic, and social systems and institutions. Organizations often turn to advocacy work when seeking to achieve systems-level change that could not be accomplished through service delivery alone. Advocacy efforts by nonprofit organizations can propel social change to better meet the needs of individuals and local communities.

Advocacy approaches can be directed politically, legally, and/or toward the community. It is important for nonprofits to recognize and distinguish between the different advocacy tools at their disposal so that they may choose the right tool - at the right time - when engaging in social change. We will further explore the concept of an engagement strategy in upcoming posts.


Nonprofit Advocacy: The Public Benefit

There are two major ways in which nonprofits provide a public benefit when they engage in advocacy work:

1.       Bridging the Public-Government Divide: Nonprofits connected to issues can provide a bridge between the abstractions of public policy and the lived experiences of those for whom policies are designed. Although governments may have survey tools to determine levels of client satisfaction, organizations that deliver programs can provide more thoughtful feedback on the way policies and programs are experienced on the ground [1]. For example, when John Stapleton, Innovation Fellow with the Metcalfe Foundation, was asked about the interaction between advocacy organizations and government, he stated that contrary to popular belief, government tends to follow the lead of organizations that are rooted in community [2]. Since public consultations are a key feature to effective policy making, without the advocacy work and input of nonprofits, policymakers would be missing out on the public input needed for evidenced-based decision making.

2.       Providing a Different Lens: According to author and political scientist Roger Gibbins, policy advocacy on behalf of registered charities is a moral imperative that should be encouraged rather than constrained. In Gibbins’ recent address at CCVO’s 2018 Annual General Meeting, he reminded us that nonprofits “not only bring more voices to the policy table, but also different voices”. Indeed, nonprofits provide a platform for those with diverse interests who might otherwise be silent, such as prisoners and parolees, or endangered species and animals suffering from inhumane treatment. Without the concerted effort of individuals and organizations dedicated to various causes, certain voices, especially the most vulnerable and underrepresented, may otherwise remain silent in the policy process. While recognizing the polarizing climate we live in, and the context of a looming provincial election, Gibbins emphasizes that there continues to be an increase in the “necessity for, and risks of, advocacy” work.


Nonprofit Advocacy: The Organizational Benefit

There are two major ways in which nonprofits benefit when they engage in advocacy work:

1.       Achieving Greater Impact and Support: High-impact organizations may start out by providing important programs, but may eventually realize that they cannot achieve large-scale social change through service delivery alone. Advocacy efforts have the potential to move the needle on longstanding challenges that have hindered an organization’s ability to move forward on its mission. Volunteers and donors may also be drawn to an organization working on systemic issues because of the possibility for broader impact and the potential to attract the attention of policymakers, community leaders and influential figures. Advocacy work can strengthen the appeal of a nonprofit as it works toward a more diverse and effective approach to achieving societal impact.

2.       Building Alliances: Real social change is seldom accomplished by organizations working alone. Advocacy work creates opportunities for organizations with similar objectives to come together and build alliances. Actively participating in coalitions that advance an advocacy strategy is often the most effective way to reach a broader audience. When nonprofits come together to “think like a sector”, they can avoid working in silos and capitalize on the benefits of a network approach to achieve greater impact.

When and Who?

Election campaign periods and budget consultations are important opportunities for nonprofits to bring issues and priorities to light. Advocacy work, however, is a continuous effort that is not time-constrained. While it is strategic to capitalize on election periods, it is equally important to build relationships with key stakeholders and policymakers year-round. Regardless of when they choose to exert advocacy efforts, nonprofits federally registered as charities must remember that they can support a cause, but they may not directly or indirectly support a political candidate or elected official. For more information on CRA regulations, please see our previous post on Canadian charities engaging in political activity.

Advocacy work means that you’re in it for the long haul. Desired changes to political, social, and economic circumstances will likely not happen overnight, but the impacts of nonprofit advocacy have been tremendous and do not require individuals to have special degrees or job titles. The nonprofit sector has an abundance of knowledge that, when shared, allows our democracy to flourish. Click here to see how other nonprofits have successfully used advocacy to achieve their goals.

[1] https://thephilanthropist.ca/2016/02/the-moral-imperative-for-policy-advocacy/

[2] https://metcalffoundation.com/stories/metcalf-stories/metcalf-interview-john-stapleton/


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