October 6, 2015
From the President

Advocacy: An Underestimated Tool?

By Hilary Pearson

The second in a series on philanthropy and civic engagement.

Do advocacy and charity go together in the same sentence? What should we think about the validity of advocacy as a strategy in a charity’s box of strategic tools? And should charitable grantmakers be taking another look at their missions with the option of advocacy in mind?

The example of several PFC members recently suggests that advocacy is being chosen as a strategy to pursue philanthropic goals, not only by foundations that have long considered this a very useful approach, but by others who are finding strength in numbers to pursue advocacy in a group.

The dictionary definition of advocacy: “the act or process of supporting a cause or proposal” is fairly innocuous. Certainly nothing to raise a concern that this approach may be considered inappropriate for a charity or that it could be deemed a “non-charitable” activity.

Of course, the choice of advocacy as a strategy among others is dependent on the mission and the objectives of the grantmaker. But it seems reasonable to think that if a funder is pursuing a goal that will require some action by public policy makers, then advocacy is not only right but necessary.

What are some of these recent examples of advocacy by foundations, and what is the context for being an advocate?

Maytree is one foundation that has a longstanding and explicit commitment to supporting greater economic and social equity especially for new migrant arrivals to Toronto… Poverty reduction, access to decent work and to the supports that make it possible for workers to gain a living wage, such as childcare and affordable housing, are key public policy goals to achieve greater equity. For many years Maytree has funded the Caledon Institute as a way of generating thoughtful policy options, evidence and analysis to support policy change. But beyond this strategy of funding policy research, Maytree also advocates, or mobilizes will to action through media advocacy, communications and community mobilization. Maytree makes public statements about the importance of the need to protect the rights of the most vulnerable. Through its Opinion pieces and other social media communications, Maytree works on both influencers and decision makers to take action.

In Quebec the Lucie and Andre Chagnon Foundation, which has been committed to poverty reduction from its inception, is building awareness and conditioning the public for policy action by commissioning a public opinion poll on Quebec’s social policies. In releasing the results of the poll, Claude Chagnon President of the Foundation, said publicly that “The choices that we make as a society will inevitably have an impact on our ability to prevent poverty and promote childhood development-from the very youngest age, right through school until adulthood-with all the repercussions that will have on Quebec’s economy and quality of life.” This statement and information follows on the heels of another act of advocacy through th emedia, an open letter to the Premier of Quebec signed by several Quebec foundations and published in March. While the foundations were not advocating for a particular policy choice, they were advocating for their proposal to the government that it take into account the impact of its policy choices on the most vulnerable in Quebec.

The message of this activity is that if a foundation has a mission that involves changing the systems that make our society more equal and more generous to all, advocacy in its various forms is an essential tool. Stories of advocacy by foundations are multiplying (I noted a few alsoin my September blog). You will hear many of these stories at our PFC Symposium in Toronto on Oct 27 and 28. PFC is shortly publishing a new series of Profiles in Philanthropy featuring the work of foundations as they engage in policy work or with policy makers, including examples of public advocacy. I believe that we will be seeing more such stories of Canadian foundations stepping up to the power of public advocacy as a tool for mission.

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