Lessons Learned: Forty Years on the back line of Policy Advocacy

Par Peter R. Elson , PhD Co-director PhiLab, University of Victoria
17 janvier 2024

It was with a start that I realized, following an invitation to write a piece on policy for this Special Edition, that I have been involved in policy advocacy in one way or another for more than forty years. This has spanned involvement at a local, provincial, national level as well across the arenas of local community development, physical well-being, public health and now philanthropy. In some cases, I have been a community leader, in others a coalition participant and in others a researcher.

There are five questions that highlight some of the lessons learned from this policy journey: 1. What’s a researcher doing here anyway? 2. Does quiet diplomacy really work? 3. What value are insiders and outsiders? 4. What have you done for me lately? And 5. Who are you anyway?

  1. What’s a researcher doing here anyway?

My transition from policy practitioner to policy researcher was, at the time, both scary and incredibly enlightening. Scary, because I headed back to graduate school after thirty years of working in the private and charitable sectors. Enlightening, because I came to appreciate first-hand the tremendous contribution research can make to practice. The biggest realization for me was that in the absence of research, charitable organizations are destined to ignore or repeat mistakes, become near-sighted rather than far-sighted, and fail to learn from what other organizations have already been through. Research provides a valuable contextual framing of practices, issues, goals, and strategic objectives. While there are some facets of board, staff and organizational development that are unique to each organization, the major factors are common to most. This is where research comes in. Research can analyze trends or events in a way that provides important insights and lessons. This research is key to a deeper understanding of policy and practice. When resources, whether time, people, or assets are limited, and demand is high; decisions must be made with care and attention to research. Policy research provides critical insights about how, when and why policy decisions are made, and what factors influence policy implementation and renewal. This is all information that can be incorporated into a comprehensive policy support strategy.

  1. Does quiet diplomacy really work?

It depends. By quiet diplomacy I mean meeting with bureaucrats, building support within networks, sitting on committees, and providing background research to policy makers and decision takers. This policy approach can be effective if there are active discussions about an issue and various policy options are being explored. It can also be effective at the outset of a policy discussion where the implications of an issue are being explored and are either underestimated or unknown. The real value of quiet diplomacy, in my view, is the early establishment of the credibility of the issue, a demonstration of the value of evidence-based research, the societal implications of acting, and the representative nature of your voice. This latter point assumes, of course, that you are not a lone voice. Each successful policy activity with which I have been associated has developed a broad and inclusive coalition of supporters across a wide spectrum of interests, but with a specific focus on a common issue. There are regulatory and administrative changes that are well within purview of government ministries that don’t require legislation. The Advisory Committee on the Charitable Sector (ACCS), for example, has provided the Canada Revenue Agency with numerous recommendations related to better coordination across government departments, enhanced data collection,  and how they could improve their relationship with Indigenous communities and vulnerable populations.

  1. What value are insiders and outsiders?

I remember once meeting as part of a coalition with a provincial cabinet minister when they candidly remarked, when one of our groups was introduced, that they thought he was one of their staff, they had seen him so often in their office! This individual had done a stellar job of introducing themselves to bureaucrats and policy advisors, providing briefing notes, research, legislative templates, and setting up all the details to provide the minister with the information the government needed to make a well informed policy decision. There is often an assumption that bureaucracies are both faceless and all-knowing. Neither is true. By taking an insider perspective, working up the bureaucratic ladder, you will gain valuable insights and support. I was often asked, when I requested a meeting with a senior official, “so who else have you already met with?” The agreement to a meeting often hinged on having met with several other key individuals beforehand. As someone connected with community, you have an insight that bureaucrats are rarely able to gain. Yet this is information that can be critical to the process of policy making and decision taking.  One of the more valuable lessons I learned was at a meeting with a policy advisor to a minister. They remarked at one point, “we agree with your issue and that something needs to be done about it, but your reference report was completed by a person publicly affiliated with an opposition party, and we can’t take the risk of the opposition party taking credit”. A valuable reality check when policy meets politics. In many ways, the last place to begin a policy discussion is with a minister, but their staff can be very valuable.  The responsibility of policy staff is to update and brief the minister, so keeping the policy person informed about developments in a community is mutually beneficial. The policy person also has a good idea of the government’s priorities so an advocate would be able to position your issue within existing priorities. You may get a meeting with the minister, together with polite conversation, but it will be an opportunity lost if all the inside homework to prepare the minister has not been done. It’s no guarantee of success, but the more research, information, and insight you have gained and shared, the more likelihood of success.

What about outsiders? In this context, outsiders are those who go public with an issue, engage the media in bringing the issue to the attention of the public. They issue clear warnings about the societal cost of inaction and the importance of immediate action. Comparisons with other jurisdictions are highlighted. The current lack of affordable housing is a case in point. Governments are experimenting with a variety of strategies while advocates are pushing governments at all levels to do more. A broad and effective public push from outsiders for action combined with an insider’s provision of policy briefs, legislative parameters, model bylaws, and research is a potent combination. This was a deliberate strategy when I was part of a broad and effective non-smoking coalition in the 1980’s that saw provincial non-smoking legislation, federal advertising regulations, and municipal by-laws sweep the country.

  1. What have you done for me lately?

Part of my research work at one point included interviews with several deputy ministers. When I asked one of them to be candid about how they see representatives from the charitable sector who they meet with, they responded, with something like, “in my whole career, a charitable sector representative has never met me without asking for something”. This was revealing. Not that the sector representative asked for something, but that they chose not to give the deputy minister a briefing without an ask. Simple reciprocity would dictate that when you are able to provide a deputy minister with information, insights, perspectives and research, there is a mutual interest in doing so. First, as noted earlier, it clearly establishes you as a source of credibility, expertise, and experience with a willingness to collaborate. Second, it goes a long way to equalizing any power imbalance that may exist. Third, it provides an opportunity for a broader policy discussion and potential policy triggers such as policy windows that would help or hinder progress. This is relationship building, and over time, is a valuable way to gain trust and influence.

  1. Who are you anyway?

Very early on, in my more active policy days, I had the opportunity from a senior bureaucrat to get a candid insight into how a specific organization was perceived. Not well as it turned out. They were convinced, and not without evidence, that every time the leadership in the organization changed, so did the issues and priorities of the organization. This meant that any semblance of “representation” of a broader community of concern was seriously diluted. So, who are you when you meet with a bureaucrat or minister, or for that matter a reporter or sister organization? Do you carry the credibility and sway of a broad constituency of supporters and if so, can you prove it? ONN in Ontario, the Chantier de l’économie sociale, and the Réseau Québécois de l’action communautaire autonome (RQ-ACA) in Québec illustrate the policy input and credibility  provincial nonprofit sector representative organizations can achieve. These three organizations (there are others)  have invested in deep and consistent communication with a wide range of members across the full expanse of their respective provinces. The Community Foundations of Canada (CFC) is another, bonded and connected through both design and purpose. That’s not always the case. It’s been an on-going Achilles heel of the charitable sector that more organizations are not part of a national representative network than those that are. Even with limited membership, there is a great deal of value in profiling the full economic, geographic, and sectoral representativeness of membership and establishing deep, consistent, and reciprocal lines of communication. This puts the leaders of these organizations in the best possible position to be truly representative.

Policy advocacy is fundamental to achieving any mission and should be supported as an integral part of any charitable purpose. It is even more critical in the context of climate change and on-going social inequalities. Over the decades, I have remained convinced that policy advocacy is as fundamental to the work of each and every foundation as is their commitment to reconciliation, responsible climate and social justice investing, and sound program management.

Researchers and research makes a difference; quiet diplomacy can work if the issue and timing are right; insiders and outsiders, when working in collaboration, can be a potent policy team; there is significant long-term policy value in building relationships and keeping senior bureaucrats informed and current; and finally, the value of deep communication with network members and credible representation cannot be underestimated.


Cet article fait partie de l’édition spéciale de Janvier 2024: Modernisation de la loi sur la bienfaisance. Vous pouvez trouver plus d’informations ici.