Do Non-Profits Hold the Key to Political Participation in Canada?

Canadians give more of their time to the non-profit sector than to organized politics.

While only 10 per cent have volunteered on a political campaign in the last five years, 55 per cent report having volunteered for a non-profit in the past year. An even larger proportion, about 58 per cent, report being involved with a non-profit community group.

Due to several troubling indicators of the health of Canadian democracy, my non-profit group Samara developed the Democracy Talks program to understand Canadians’ experiences with politics and the barriers they face to political participation.

A number of Democracy Talks participants explained that the social aspect and participatory nature of working with community groups makes them much more inviting than political offices or parties. In contrast to the frustration or power imbalance they’ve felt with political organizations, they feel welcomed and encouraged by community groups to make a difference on their chosen issue.

According to the 2013 Edelman Trust Barometer the non-profit sector is the most trusted sector in Canada, with 73 per cent of people saying they put some level of trust in non-profits. Only 58 per cent felt the same way about government. Given the confidence non-profit community groups enjoy, and the fact that many are formed around issues that are inherently political (such as neighbourhood safety, the environment or international development), non-profit community groups are well-positioned to help their members engage in political issues. [view:in_this_series=block_1]

By bringing discussions about politics into their programming, community groups can normalize such discussions for their members and reinforce the idea that political participation is socially acceptable and desirable. As community groups continue to provide these opportunities, the members who take part become more likely to translate their discussions into political engagement.

A recent American study clearly shows the impact that the non-profit sector can have on citizen engagement — in this specific case, on voter turnout.

In the 2012 general election in the U.S., the group Non-Profit Vote studied voter registration and found that turnout for those who had been registered by a non-profit was significantly higher than turnout in the general population — 74 per cent vs. 68 per cent. The group also found that because of non-profits’ reach and roots within communities, they were particularly good at mobilizing segments of the community who are usually underrepresented in politics.

It is well known that personally asking someone to vote is the most effective way to influence them to do so. However, because underrepresented groups are often seen as having a low propensity to vote, political parties tend to ignore them when registering voters. Non-Profit Vote’s study shows that non-profit community groups can effectively step in to fill this pivotal role.

Citizens Engaged With Non-Profits More Likely to Vote

Through Democracy Talks, we met two individuals whose experiences capture the impact that community groups can have on democratic engagement.

Uzma Irfan is a Pakistani-Canadian who has lived in Malton, Ontario, for 14 years. Today, she is a leader in her community and works with local city councillors and MPPs on a wide variety of initiatives. Yet she told us that only one year ago she felt “hesitant to talk to political leaders [due to] a lack of confidence.” Her turning point came when she joined a local group called the Malton Women Council. The council provided her with training, and trusted her with opportunities to represent their needs in high-level meetings with her political representatives. Now she says she can “talk to politicians easily.”

James Wattam had a similar experience. He joined an Engineers Without Borders campus group at his university in Saskatchewan, where he received specialized training in interacting with MPs. He says the training made him “more comfortable with raising [his] voice.” James now serves as the campus group’s vice president of advocacy, regularly meeting with MPs throughout the province and pushing forward Engineers Without Border’s international development goals.

Through their non-profit community groups, both Uzma and James learned the skills needed to engage with organized politics. Further, in both cases the non-profit group has provided them a platform from which to constructively contribute to public policy development. Their experiences illustrate an important pattern noted in Samara’s public polling: 73 per cent of those who report having been active in a non-profit group in the past 12 months also report that they voted in the last election. By contrast, just 62 per cent who had not been active with a group said they voted.

One Conversation at a Time

To be in the room during a Democracy Talk is to witness the impact that one conversation can have.

The comfortable spaces that community groups provide combined with a deep knowledge of issues that interest their members allows them to create empowering opportunities for those who might otherwise be frustrated, intimidated or hesitant to get involved.

Most research on the role of community groups in increasing political engagement has been done in an American context, while attention in Canada has largely focused on increasing voter turnout. The fact that turnout levels remain low indicates, however, that traditional approaches to mobilizing voters are not working as well as we might hope.

It is for this reason that Democracy Talks works with non-profit community groups on political education and mobilization between elections, starting with something as simple as an invitation to talk about politics.

In the coming years, Samara will work closely with community partners, settlement agencies, ESL teachers and campus groups to continue to facilitate conversations that open up the world of politics to Canadians who are too often left out of political discussions.

The proportion of the Canadian public engaging in public policy and politics over the past 30 years has been on the decline. By tackling the roots of citizens’ disengagement by connecting with citizens through non-profit groups, hopefully it won’t take another 30 years to turn things around. 

Alison Loat is the executive director and co-founder of Samara, a charitable organization dedicated to increasing political participation in Canada. Find out more about Democracy Talks online or contact John Beebe at

This article originally appeared in The Philanthropist.

Image Credit: Zack Embree

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