The Transformation of Advocacy in the Community Sector

What is advocacy? How do you define advocacy? People understand it differently depending on the context in which they first encounter it. It could refer to political campaigning or lobbying. It could be a way to describe an argument for a particular position. It could be about making a case for a specific public policy change. It’s one of those elastic terms.

In the charitable or community sector, when we talk about advocacy, we are usually talking about an action directed at government policy makers or public agencies. Much advocacy by charities is intended to bring about a public policy change that will support the people and communities who are at the heart of their mission. Typically, when a charity is “advocating” it is making a case for change to the people who have the power to make that change, but who may not be aware of the need or who treat it as a lower priority.

Advocacy can have a bad name in the charitable sector because it is often associated with political partisanship, and that’s not a permissible activity for a charity. This reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of what kind of activities fall under the aegis of advocacy. Advocacy activities range from low key, “behind the scenes“ actions such as policy research and evidence gathering, all the way to very public and highly visible media campaigns and rallies actively pressing for a specific policy change. Despite this range of options, pursuing the strategy of advocacy is uncomfortable for many charities because of the rules set by the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA), as well as the CRA’s past audits of charities for so-called “political” activities.

Although charities may think that advocacy is out of bounds for them, there is much more you can do than you can’t do. Many charity boards think that if you state any position at all publicly you are running the risk of getting into trouble, and not behaving like a charity—yet this is simply not true. At the same time, it’s not just boards (or their legal advisors) who can limit advocacy, for charities also lack the resources to devote to it. That’s unfortunate because they often know what works best on the ground. Charities can provide useful information to policy makers and talk about what should change, without taking a partisan stance. But approaches can differ based on strategy. A charity that provides direct service to its clients, say, may not want to pull any resources away from meeting clients’ needs. Another charity in the same field may understand advocacy as very much a part of their mission because for them advocacy relates to social justice. In their view, the mission is to advocate because it isn’t right to be silent.

Charitable foundations, like operating charities, are also often risk averse. Foundations think of themselves as funders who work at arm’s length to support charities with more direct experience with issues. Some believe, with justification, that the charities they fund are best suited to do the advocacy work because of their proximity to the issues. Others, nervous about being associated with “political” activities, might prohibit use of their resources for advocacy. But foundations can fund advocacy or act as advocates themselves—and more are doing so. This is part of the transformation we are beginning to see in the charitable sector in Canada. Foundations are starting to see the possibilities, and to connect them to their own charitable purpose.

Advocacy as a strategy is often related to the goal of public policy change. That may not be entirely fair to the role of advocates. In fact, you can advocate without trying to change policy. For instance, you can describe how your work changes the lives of people you work with, without pushing for a policy change. In this chapter, however, we address advocacy intended to contribute to policy change. Advocacy can be about all the work leading up to policy change, or it can be about what comes after, which is improving a particular policy once implemented.

Some foundations in Canada do work that is clearly related to policy change—they convene, they call on experts and practitioners, and they bring people together to have an informed conversation about what works and what doesn’t work in a policy framework. This is work that makes it possible for policy makers to identify their options. The comfort zone for many foundations is convening, funding research, or think tanks, or collective policy development by charities—the work that precedes policy change.

The Laidlaw Foundation of Toronto focuses on youth in difficulty, whether in foster care, in the justice system, or on the streets. They believe in youth voice, that youth have something to say about their own conditions and situations and how to better them. To give youth a chance to raise their voices during an election campaign, for example, where they are not usually heard, Laidlaw convened a group of youth and invited politicians of all parties to come to a town hall to listen to youth. In this case, the foundation was equipping them to advocate for themselves by preparing them and creating an opportunity for them to speak to politicians directly.

Another example is the Early Childhood Development Funders Working Group. For many years, a group of foundations have been dedicated to promoting a more supportive public policy environment for the growth and development of very young children. They did this for the most part behind the scenes. In 2015, the Group decided to write a public letter during a federal election campaign, setting out the conditions for a successful early childhood experience and showing what government can do to help and why. This public advocacy step had impact. It was followed by two more letters in 2021 during the next election campaign with the goal of trying to shape the public debate about the conditions for success in early childhood.

In Quebec the collectif des fondations québécoises contre les inégalités came together in 2015 as the provincial government was framing its next budget to make a public statement to the government about the negative impact of fiscal austerity on the most vulnerable in society. These funders were taking a position and advocating for the government to pay attention to the differential impact of the cuts on the population. The letter was published in a newspaper, Le Devoir, then followed by several organized convenings. This group of funders continues to collaborate and comes together to talk about using advocacy among other tools to advance their mission of tackling poverty and inequality in communities.

In 2020, during the worst of the Covid pandemic, four Montreal-based foundations came together in a collaboration they called the Consortium Covid Quebec. Their goal was to provide support to community workers in some of the poorer neighbourhoods, which house the most vulnerable populations of Montreal, to educate people about how to protect themselves against Covid. They were filling a gap that governments were not by creating local mobilization to provide public health education and direct support for measures to vaccinate the population. Over two years the Consortium served an important public purpose in financing local efforts to reach people and to save lives through education and vaccination. In fall 2022, as the effort wound down, community organizations and their foundations supported a public call on the government to prepare for future emergencies by funding local mobilization efforts like those modeled through the pandemic by the Consortium’s partners.

Advocacy for mission in the charitable sector is becoming much more a part of the zeitgeist. The summer of 2020 was an important moment for many social justice movements such as Black Lives Matter and movements for Indigenous rights. The media prominence of these issues of racial and social equity and injustice has pushed more charities to raise their voices. There is a change in the understanding of what it means to be an active citizen. Environmental activism is also part of this change. And digital media make a huge difference. Smaller charities now have significant ability to have direct impact by using social media tools. Digital technologies have created a new sense of the power to act on issues that might have appeared to be only controlled or influenced by large corporations, or governments. People in communities feel they have an influence on issues that they did not have before the spread of social media.


Why has advocacy been perceived as a non-charitable activity in the past?

The reluctance of charities to act as advocates for policy change is connected to the way the federal government has viewed advocacy, describing it as “political” in the Income Tax Act and treating it as a separate activity from charitable activity. In the early 2010s, federal Cabinet Ministers criticized environmental charities for their advocacy activity in opposition to oil and gas pipeline development. Audits of charities and their political activities by the CRA in 2014 caused an uproar in Quebec, as they did in other provinces. During the 2015 election campaign, the Liberals promised to look at harassment of charities for so-called political activities and review what had happened during the years of the Harper government. In 2015 the Liberal Government set up the Consultation Panel on the Political Activities of Charities, which, after consulting with charities and communities, made four recommendations, all of which were adopted after 2016. So-called “political” activities are now renamed as public policy dialogue and development activities. The CRA limits on policy development activities have been dropped and expenditures on such activities do not have to be separately reported. The CRA audits specifically for political activity have stopped. So legal constraints have been lifted to a great degree.

But the positive changes in law and regulation have not completely erased the chill on advocacy. Charities had absorbed the message over many years that it was not entirely legitimate for charities to be critics of government policy—they don’t want to bite the hand that feeds them. There are still barriers thrown up by charity boards, so charity leaders must work hard to persuade their boards before they can take a public position. Yet this aversion is no longer acceptable to many people working in mission-driven charities and social enterprises. Today’s activists are not sympathetic to the idea that charity status might preclude advocacy or taking a public stand.

A counter argument to the reluctant charity board has been made by Dr. Roger Gibbins, a western Canadian academic who was funded by the Max Bell Foundation for a year to examine the question of charity and advocacy. He said in 2015 that “Charitable status (and its financial benefits) creates a moral imperative to pursue the public good and to be engaged as policy advocates in political and ethical debates about policy and social change.” It could be argued that because charities work for public benefit and are often funded by the public either through government support or through tax incentives to donors, there is a public interest in seeing charities contribute to policy work. Because charities are public entities, they have an obligation to contribute to public policy development. This argument goes to the heart of the question: to what degree are charities public bodies and therefore to what degree are they obliged to engage in public policy? Charities are also a way for citizens to engage in the work of building their communities. This is a question that many charity leaders and donors should ask themselves: do we have a moral imperative as citizens to engage in advocacy in order to help our community thrive?


What does it take to be successful in advocacy for policy change?

Policy change takes expertise, resources, patience, and persistence by advocates. Policy change advocacy is also inherently a collaborative project. It is very difficult for one charity to bring about a significant shift in policy on its own. To be effective, charities need to work with each other and with community peers.

An example of collaborative advocacy that led to a substantial shift in public policy at the federal level was the development of the National Housing Strategy in 2017. The National Housing Collaborative (NHC) was a Canadian coalition of non-profits and foundations set up as a time-limited initiative with a goal of ending homelessness in Canada within 10 years. The collaborative was supported among others by United Way Centraide, the United Way of Greater Toronto, and private foundations. Through their collaborative efforts over several years, beginning in Ontario, the Collaborative built a social “lab” to test the elements of a National Housing Strategy, including the implementation of a Portable Housing Benefit for tenants struggling to afford rent. Because most households face homelessness due to a lack of affordable housing, providing a subsidy would bring households out of homelessness and allow them to allocate their extra finances to support education, nutrition, and well-being. Since the subsidy would be “needs-based,” people would have liberty to move to other neighborhoods or cities without fear of unaffordable rents. The work of the Collaborative strongly influenced the National Housing Strategy announced by the federal government in 2017. The Strategy aims to reduce chronic homelessness by 50%, remove 530,000 families from housing need, and build up to 100,000 new affordable homes. One of the important elements in the Strategy is a Canada Housing Benefit, which puts choice and buying power in the hands of low-income renters. This benefit came directly out of the modeling done by the NHC.

This example demonstrates how nonprofit advocates, working together over years, created an actionable set of initiatives and programs that the federal government could adopt in collaboration with provincial governments. The National Housing Collaborative was successful because it understood that it had to be very practical, and it tested the various policy ideas to see if they would work before proposing them to government.

Yet most charities wouldn’t be able to do this work of testing and developing policy ideas because they don’t have capacity to do so at scale. Through their mission and relationships, they do have the capacity to share expertise, and create access to community knowledge and lived experience. Funders can help by doing the convening with both community partners and policy makers. They can also help charities by giving them support for data collection. This is important since it is difficult to make a case for policy change without evidence, and the data that is routinely collected for service delivery and operations is not always the same as the data required for policy work.

Network organizations can help develop capacity for policy advocacy by building awareness and normalizing it as an activity for charities. This is another way in which funders can help promote advocacy, by supporting the policy advocacy budgets of intermediary, umbrella, and network organizations. Funders can also fund sector policy training institutes. As more nonprofit leaders take advantage of this training or of other educational opportunities, their sense of confidence and capability around advocacy will develop.

People, and especially the young, feel a great sense of urgency for change. The climate crisis is real and urgent. Young people are very aware and plugged into advocacy movements. They are eager to join a march, sign a petition, speak to politicians. There is, however, a gap between this kind of activism and the work that it takes over many years to make policy change. Charity leaders need to be aware of this, especially with their activist volunteers. There is no substitute for the hard work of gathering evidence, developing and testing options, and making the case for change.


Policy change advocacy in action. An example from Quebec

Le secteur Communautaire (the community sector) and the state in Quebec are often connected in their mutual projet de société. Charities or community groups see themselves as legitimate participants in public policy debates. The word plaidoyer (advocacy) isn’t much used in the francophone context to describe public policy development activities, but at times it can be something like a love-hate relationship between public and charitable sectors. Many community groups feel there is a lack of recognition by the government of what they can bring to the table. And the different jurisdictions of government in Quebec can be as frustrating to community groups in Quebec as they are elsewhere in Canada. Community groups depend on governments for their funding. But they also depend on governments for effective regulation and decision-making. This is not easy to achieve in multi-jurisdictional situations with many players such as the province, municipalities, health agencies, the police, and the justice system.


Head & Hands: the toxic drug crisis and the role of public health

In late 2023, the idea that Montréal is contending with a worsening toxic drug crisis is not controversial. In fact, the Federal government readily acknowledges that Canada is facing a national opioid overdose crisis. A few years earlier, however, as the increase in the number of overdoses and fatalities was steadily moving eastward across Canada, community sector actors found themselves having to advocate for a more proactive, localized approach to mitigating preventable loss of life.

Head & Hands (H&H), a nonprofit which serves a primarily English-speaking youth clientele in one of the most culturally diverse boroughs of the city, is one of a handful of organizations to offer harm reduction services on the western half of the island of Montréal. This combination of geography and demography made H&H uniquely positioned to reach a population that was often underserved by the existing services. H&H staff were also more aware of how the realities of people who use drugs in and around their neighborhood were changing. When H&H staff reached out to the Direction de la Santé Publique (DRSP), Montréal’s public health agency, to flag their concern and to make the case for greater material support of harm reduction services, the request was well-received, but nonetheless met with reticence. The agency readily acknowledged the severity of the crisis, while maintaining that the overall profile of drug usage in Québec was sufficiently distinct from that of the rest of the country that the crisis warranted monitoring rather than immediate action. The conversations which ensued over weeks and months are an excellent example of the behind-the-scenes advocacy roles that community actors can play as highly discriminating sensors of early signals.

These exchanges with the DRSP led to a growing number of basic harm reduction services being offered through Head & Hands with the public health agency’s support, such as providing sharps containers for used needle disposal, tourniquets, etc. Having access to new, single-use materials, was and is a major protective factor against blood borne illnesses, but in the context of growing harms due to an adulterated supply there still needed to be mitigation against the risk of overdose. Because of this unmet need the Director of the Street Work program began to plan for a pop-up overdose prevention site, the Head & Hands Overdose Prevention Site (HHOPS). The intention was to pilot the provision of drug-checking services, and eventually supervised consumption as well. There were, though, a number of barriers to overcome, including a legal framework which made the very act of verifying the presence of fentanyl illegal because it implies that someone is in possession of a controlled substance.

H&H began to speak with local law enforcement, municipal administrators, as well as both provincial and federal health regulators, to secure each actor’s buy-in to move forward with HHOPS. As is often the case when trying to tackle a complex issue (e.g., housing), each level of government has its jurisdictional considerations, and there was both overlap and disjunction among them. The project’s success was contingent on assuring each actor that every other actor was on board, as each cited another as needing to be involved.

This delicate dance, sometimes really more akin to a wobble, progressed. Finally, the HHOPS team set up the site and did dry-runs. Over the course of months, through countless meetings, phone calls, applications, and e-mails, what was once considered impossible was coming to fruition. Ideally, this is where HHOPS would be described as a watershed moment for how new harm reduction services are introduced in Montréal. Instead, the project ended up having to be put on hold following the intervention of a borough police chief who, while not responsible for the neighborhood within which Head & Hands operated, did hold the mandate for harm reduction services. The local police chief deferred to their colleague at the borough level. Just like that, the dance came to a stop. The Director of the Street Work program, and the HHOPS team of staff and volunteers invested many more hours over several months through the COVID-19 pandemic to secure buy-in and permissions for the project—and finally succeeded. Nonetheless, success was bittersweet. By the time it had all come together, many of the staff members who were key to the initiative had left the organization, for a variety of reasons, including exhaustion and burnout.

In the meantime, however, there has been an increase in the number of sites, and in the breadth of services that are available across the island of Montréal. There is a growing consensus for the need to proactively address the toxic drug crisis in Québec, and a better understanding of the risk that stigma poses to people who use drugs. This is the result of years of work by dozens of organizations like Head & Hands, which continue to commit time, energy, and resources to changing how governments and public sector institutions approach this crisis.


How can a charity engage with advocacy?

    • There are many ways that a charity can be successful in advocacy.
    • Begin by understanding that advocacy for policy change can range from simple information sharing and awareness raising to actively building support for the policy change you want to see. You can choose where best to play a role.
    • Use different strategies: start small or local; collect data; and think about how to educate the public on an issue. It’s not always about changing the mind of government.
    • Take a collaborative approach to policy advocacy. Charities are more effective when they can work together to raise their voices or to present evidence.
    • Respect the accountability of elected officials. Offer practical solutions to policy problems.
    • Facilitate the voice of people with lived experience. This is a unique role that charities can play to bring these voices forward.



It’s important to find a way to talk about advocacy in a way that is not threatening to government, or to other interests. We must fight the idea that it is not charitable to raise your voice, to state your position. This notion penalizes all of us in society. The boundaries between not-for-profit and other sectors are starting to blur. There is much more collaborative activity, working on a systemic problem together. Government needs to understand and acknowledge that. More forward-thinking policy makers are seeing that society’s problems are too complex to be solved only by one sector, and what used to be called advocacy may now be better described as collaborative policy making. It starts with a belief in the legitimacy of advocacy as an element of charitable work. There are new opportunities and possibilities for advocacy work as part of mission. It takes boldness, expertise and money but charities can and increasingly will bring about social transformation through advocacy.

Andrea Clarke

Andrea Clarke

Former President, Lucie and André Chagnon Foundation

Hilary Pearson

Hilary Pearson

Philanthropy observer and author Founding President of Philanthropic Foundations Canada