Few Canadians think about public policy, though it touches our lives in innumerable ways every day. Our collective safety and security, well-being and prosperity do not appear out of thin air. They are, in large measure, the outcomes of a vigorous public policy process.
Charities have a long history of playing important roles in that policy process. Here are just 10 examples of policies that have been shaped by the work of Canadian charities.
1) Laws against drunk driving. Mothers Against Drinking and Driving (MADD) Canada has long played a leading role in advocating for stronger policies against impaired driving. MADD Canada emerged in 1989 from an Ontario-based anti-drinking and driving group that was one of several early pioneer organizations that advocated against drinking and driving.
2) Regulation of tobacco products. The anti-tobacco lobby in Canada dates back to at least the middle of the twentieth century, when the National Cancer Institute of Canada declared there may be a link between lung cancer and smoking. In the subsequent decades, dozens of charities have contributed to the effort to limit the sale and use of tobacco products.
3) Removal of bisphenol-A from baby bottles. In 2000, the Canadian Environmental Law Association turned its attention to the issue of toxins and human health. In the years following, dozens of charities — many of which joined forces in the Canadian Partnership for Children’s Health and Environment — developed a sound research base and engagement strategy that contributed to a 2008 Health Canada ban on the use of bisphenol-A in baby bottles.
4) The effective provision of mental health services to youth in Ontario. Starting with careful planning in 2004, Children’s Mental Health Ontario informed the development of a Child and Youth Mental Health and Addictions Strategy for the province. The organization worked for eight years to move the issue of children’s mental health up the provincial health agenda, and in late 2011 was rewarded for its efforts when the provincial government pledged significant funding to help support kids with mental health and addictions issues.
5) The Registered Disability Savings Plan. By the late 1990s, Al Etmanski and his wife Vickie Cammack had concluded that the charity they founded — Planned Lifetime Advocacy Network — needed to focus some of its energy on changing the policy framework to permit families of children with disabilities to better prepare for their children’s financial future. After years of developing credible research and building a constituency, they were rewarded with success. The Registered Disability Savings Plan was announced in the 2007 federal budget.
6) Increases to Alberta's Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped. Each year between 2005 and 2009, the Government of Alberta made increases to the monthly benefit under the Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped program. By 2010, charities on the front line serving Alberta’s disabled community believed a further increase was warranted. Dozens of charities — many of which coordinated their efforts through the Alberta Disabilities Forum — continued to make the case until the province announced an additional increase in 2012.
7) The development and delivery of high-quality early childhood care. The charities that have tirelessly devoted their energy to early childhood development and care are too numerous to mention. Canada’s public discourse on this issue is populated by a broad network of universities, service delivery agencies, think tanks and other charities whose most recent success is the emergence of child care as a central issue in the 2015 federal election campaign.
8) The Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement. While our governments at all levels are the central institutions of public governance, decisions made in the public interest don’t necessarily require government involvement. The Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement emerged from a long negotiation between the 19 member companies of the Forestry Products Association of Canada and seven leading Canadian environmental non-government organizations. It aims to ensure sustainable forestry practice in more than 73 million hectares of public forests.
9) The measures that eliminated acid rain. The Canadian Coalition on Acid Rain was formed as a charity in 1981 by 12 member groups. By 1990, when the coalition achieved success with the passage of amendments to the US Clean Air Act, there were 58 member groups, all of whom had contributed to the research, advocacy and education that contributed to ultimate success.
10) The emergent green economy. Dozens of charities in Canada are contributing research, convening, organizing and education elements to a broad-based movement that aims to shift our economy to a more sustainable footing. With any luck, we’ll be able to look back in ten years time and easily identify some big wins.
The list could go on and on, and it’s as varied as the concerns Canadians have for their society, and the hopes they have for its future.
While the list of successes is long and should be celebrated, there is an even longer list of false starts, blind alleys and clear failures in the space between policy decision makers in government and policy advocates in the charitable sector.
No policy advocate can expect success all the time, but as a sector, and as a society, we can do better. And given the complexity of many of the challenges before us — both at home and in our relations with the globalized world — there is good reason to try.
There are at least three arguments in favour of Canadian charities engaging with governments in the public policy process.
The first invokes deeply held Canadian democratic values. The quality of a democracy depends on considerably more than citizens turning out to vote in elections. The extent to which elections are informed and motivated by citizens engaging with each other on issues they care about is an indicator of the overall health of our political system.
Many Canadian charities are elemental expressions of citizen aspirations to participate in caring for each other and governing ourselves. As such, these groups are an important platform for engagement between citizens and the elected officials and public servants who act on their behalf.
The second argument is that charities often have good policy advice to give. It is expressed very well in Canada Revenue Agency’s Policy Statement on Political Activities (CPS-022):
Through their dedicated delivery of essential programs, many charities have acquired a wealth of knowledge about how government policies affect people's lives. Charities are well placed to study, assess, and comment on those government policies. Canadians benefit from the efforts of charities and the practical, innovative ways they use to resolve complex issues related to delivering social services. Beyond service delivery, their expertise is also a vital source of information for governments to help guide policy decisions. It is therefore essential that charities continue to offer their direct knowledge of social issues to public policy debates.
The third argument is that governments need good advice. Much has been written about the diminishing capacity of governments in Canada, whether municipal, provincial or federal, to do the kind of policy development necessary to respond to the challenges they face.
At the same time as their resources are shrinking, governments are facing heightened scrutiny and expectations from an electorate that is increasingly diverse. Canadian charities can help in a range of ways, including bringing front line knowledge to bear, convening stakeholders, facilitating and informing dialogue, delivering and assessing demonstrations and pilots, and providing neutral spaces for engagement.
But most of all, charities serve a vital purpose in bringing the public interest to the forefront of public conversations. Without years of lobbying by Canadian charities, we may well lack many societal features Canadians now cherish.
While charities’ work can have enormous payoffs in the public policy sphere, it’s seldom an easy path, and an arcane regulatory environment leaves many would-be advocates unclear how aggressively charities can lobby for policy change.
This article originally appeared in The Philanthropist.
Image Credit: David Precious via Flickr
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