A voice for nonprofits and social enterprise in public policy and government relations

As our communities are changing and becoming more diverse, our leadership, strategy and approaches in nonprofits, charities and social enterprises are not keeping pace with this change. If we are going to address the persistent challenges facing our communities and advance the quality of life for all, our organizations and solutions need to represent the communities they are a part of. To achieve lasting change, we must consider the systems that are impacting equity and inclusion. Collaborating with government on these issues is an essential part of the equation. 

Pillar was created in 2001 to be a “voice for the nonprofit sector” and therefore at our core is a commitment to taking a role around public policy and government relations. This work has been most often done in partnership with other organizations at the municipal, provincial and federal government levels. As part of the Maytree Policy School, our Executive Director developed a policy strategy. Pillar’s current public policy priorities are sector-focused, rather than issues-focused, but we are mindful that other sector-focused priorities may emerge going forward. 

We will share some of the issues and approaches we have taken with each level of government. With the municipal government, Pillar often leads and mobilizes partnerships, at the provincial level we work closely with the Ontario Nonprofit Network and at the federal level we work closely with Imagine Canada.

A collaborative approach to municipal public policy

Our work at the municipal level has included election-related activities such as candidate surveys – to poll their commitment and understanding about the nonprofit sector, social enterprise and equity and inclusion – as well as organizing all candidate meetings. Our work has also revolved around raising awareness and understanding of the role of nonprofits and social enterprise and their economic impact within our community to support the need to invest in our sector’s work. For example, London Community Foundation, United Way London-Middlesex and Pillar advocated for maintaining the affordable housing and community capital funds. While we were successful in our efforts to ensure affordable housing monies were maintained, the community capital fund was cut. When a new City Council was inaugurated, we worked to have the new Innovation and Capital Fund established with increased commitment levels over a three-year period. 

Some of our most recent involvement at a municipal level includes our Director of Diversity and Governance participating in the creation of the City’s Community Diversity & Inclusion Strategy, and our Executive Director participating in the creation and implementation of the Community Economic Roadmap. Our Executive Director and Director of Innovation Works have also been meeting with the new City Council recently to ask key questions about their vision. Each meeting is followed up with the “Pillar at a Glance” briefing document. 

Lastly, our Executive Director organized ongoing quarterly meetings with the new Mayor along with the CEOs of United Way Elgin Middlesex and London Community Foundation. These meetings focus on the nonprofit sector, social enterprise and key issues impacting our community.

Engaging with Ontario Nonprofit Network for provincial public policy

Pillar’s Executive Director was part of the development of the Ontario Nonprofit Network (ONN), an organization with a mission to engage, advocate, and lead with, and for, nonprofits that work for the public benefit in Ontario. Pillar partners with ONN as its key partner in nonprofit provincial advocacy. In addition to our significant contributions to ONN, Pillar participates in pre-budget consultations and submissions with the Ontario government. We meet with our local MPPs three to four times per year to share our work and to understand their priorities and opportunities for partnership. Our staff team also contributed to the development of the Social Enterprise and Social Finance Strategy. Additionally, our Director of Social Innovation contributes to the Ontario Social Economy Roundtable (OSER), and our Executive Director served on the Premier’s Community Hubs Advisory Committee.

To achieve lasting change, we must consider the systems that are impacting equity and inclusion. Collaborating with government on these issues is an essential part of the equation.

Leaning on Imagine Canada and our local members of Parliament 

Our capacity as an organization for public policy and government relations has rested mostly with our Executive Director and, more recently, the VERGE Capital team related to social finance. Imagine Canada has been our key partner in federal policy development and our ED has participated in Hill Days to bring forward issues and policy specific to charities, social innovation and social finance.

Pillar and VERGE Capital hold a strong relationship with our local MP Peter Fragiskatos, who is our representative from a geographic standpoint, and with MP Kate Young who also engages with and supports our works. Our consultations in partnership with the MPs are ongoing and our meetings are frequent. London North MP Peter Fragiskatos highlighted our work at Pillar and VERGE Capital while posing a question to PM Justin Trudeau in the House of Commons about how local organizations like Pillar will be supported with the new fund and budget.

Top 10 tips for working with all levels of government
  1. Think cross-partisan, rather than nonpartisan – Many nonprofits and charities often reference their nonpartisan stance. We have policies that state this imperative, and in the case of charities we are bound by Canadian Revenue Agency rules to be nonpartisan. The term cross-partisanship  better reflects the approach we take at Pillar. Similarly to the problem with the word “nonprofit” sharing more about what we are not than about what we are, “nonpartisan” also comes from a deficit mindset. Working across all parties and connecting with them early in our advocacy efforts, reflects an approach rooted in engagement, partnership and action. If your policy issue can be put on hold for four years because you lack alignment with the current government you may need to ask yourself how important the issue is.
  2. Start with questions and be solutions focused – When we ask questions before producing answers it leads to better solutions. Collecting and analyzing data, formulating hypotheses and assessing a range of policy options and solutions leads to good policy. When we focus only on the problems we can miss important information, perspectives and solutions. Pausing to consider whether we are creating any unintended consequences and ripple effects with our policy proposals and solutions is critical to successful and sustainable systems change.
  3. Harness the power of networks – Networks have the power to test and build consensus and to broker solutions. We can leverage a wide range of networks to serve as knowledge mobilizers around information and resources in order to drive innovation and inform policy development. We can harness the political capital of networks to better serve our communities.
  4. Establish cross-sector partnerships – Cross-sector partnerships enable all sectors to contribute to, identify and implement cross-sector solutions. Establishing trust and practicing radical empathy are key factors in creating enduring and effective collaborations, so be ruthless when making decisions about which partners fit your public policy strategy; your success depends on how effectively you work together.
  5. Embrace radical optimism – When we bring forward policy we should offer proof of possibility and share an aspirational endgame, including more allies, more resources, more support. As rightly stated by Guillermo del Toro, Oscar-winning filmmaker, director and producer, “Optimism is not uncool, it is rebellious, daring, and vital.”
  6. Value the many, and not the one – To build better movements around policy we should put value in the many, and not the one, and cultivate leadership at all levels. This includes distributing policy development across a team within our organization. Additionally, having varied partners and allies across sectors in our policy efforts will strengthen collective leadership and influence.
  7. Engage those with lived experience – When developing policy that addresses the needs of specific populations, it’s important to engage those with lived experience early and often. Having a participatory process is crucial to developing policies that are based on true needs rather than assumptions. When we engage individuals with lived experience as authors of systems innovation and policy change our proposed solutions resonate with government.
  8. Understand the value of social research and development – Nonprofits often lack the capacity, resources and data they need to rigorously measure the impact of their work. Further, it can be challenging to access the right evidence and research to inform decisions that lead to continuous improvement and strong policy strategy. Just like the private sector, investment in research and development is critical for achieving our objectives; for nonprofits it is required for evidence informed policy. Research results are a far greater tool for persuading government than relying on anecdotal observations. Evidence has become a valuable currency.
  9. Communicate your story – To ensure that your message resonates with your audience, adopt the language used by the government you are bringing your policy strategy forward to. Sharing a compelling story that is personal and evokes empathy and understanding will better illuminate the policy issue. When we share values, emotion and action, in our discussions and in our written pieces, it connects those we hope to influence to a storyline of the human experience. Practicing radical empathy and putting yourself in the shoes of the “other” to understand their thinking and perspective can change minds and hearts and generate responses that address the issues at hand.
  10. Appreciate relentless incrementalism – Public policy takes time and requires patience and tenacity. To practice ‘everyday advocacy’ requires an acceptance of relentless incrementalism. I thought I had previously understood this lengthy timeline, yet after hearing advocacy stories about campaigns that took 5-10 years of sustained effort (or longer!) I was reminded of the stick-to-itiveness that’s foundational to policy change.