When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.”
I’ve long admired this quote from Dom Helder Camara, the Brazilian Catholic Archbishop, because I’ve often faced this paradox in my own work. Many people are happy to write checks to a soup kitchen or donate cans of food, but when you ask them to challenge systems that have kept people food insecure for generations, they become defensive. “Why are you getting so political,” they ask. “Aren’t you a charity?”
This kind of response represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of charities and nonprofits in our society. Whether an organization’s mission is to alleviate poverty, increase access to the arts, or protect local wetlands, all charities are bound by their responsibility and an accountability to the one thing that matters most — the people and communities that they serve.
Pretending that the complex issues facing these communities can be solved by treating the symptoms (poverty, food insecurity, environmental damage) instead of the diseases (austerity, racism, patriarchy, colonialism) is doing them a massive disservice. Indeed, it can even prevent achieving meaningful progress.
To truly make an impact as a sector, we need to listen to our communities and raise our collective voices. In particular, we need to challenge elected officials to make the concrete changes that can improve the health of our communities for generations to come.
Need to make the case to your nervous Board chair? Here are some strategies.
Remind them the advocacy freeze is over.
For years, the deafening silence in Canada’s nonprofit sector could be attributed to the CRA’s harmful cap on “political activities” — where only 10% of a charitable organization’s budget could be spent on advocacy — and the lawsuits pursued by the Harper administration against organizations who they believed violated the cap.
“Political,” in the CRA’s definition, included everything from suggesting a policy could be improved to encouraging people to vote. Before the cap was rescinded in 2016, only about 500 of the 86,000 registered charities in Canada reported carrying out political activities on their CRA return. Now that the “advocacy chill” of the Harper years is over, there is simply no excuse for charities and nonprofits not to take a stand on the issues that affect the communities they serve.
Find partners in advocacy.
If your organization is new to public advocacy, first seek to build meaningful, reciprocal relationships with nonprofits who’ve been active in the space for years, and with the community-led or grassroots groups and social movements who are pushing for the most meaningful social change often with the fewest resources.
A lingering survival of the fittest culture pits nonprofits against one another in the endless hunt for funding. In this climate, taking controversial stances can be seen as risking public support. However, it doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game. When nonprofits share our data, resources, and advocacy messages with one another — and with our community — we eliminate this risk and strengthen our collective ability to advocate with impact.
Illustrate how crucial our data is.
61% of Canadians don’t think politicians have the solutions to address challenges in communities, and I’m not surprised. Few politicians have a front-row view to the concerns of their less privileged constituents.
Charities, on the other hand, have first-hand knowledge due to the very nature of their work. We see how systems that were never designed for people who are Black, Indigenous, racialized, disabled, LGBTQA2S, poor, or without status in Canada, inevitably end up harming them. To stay silent when these same communities clearly express their needs and aspirations is to ignore what we know to be true.
COVID has shown how government strategies can dramatically favour or harm certain communities. The data that community-based nonprofits hold, whether qualitative and quantitative, provides a clear perspective of what’s needed on the ground. We have a moral obligation to share it.
Follow the lead of your community members.
When we engage meaningfully with the people who access our services, and provide them with the resources to communicate their own solutions to the media and government, we can move beyond charity into something far more powerful — social solidarity.
The era of WE Day is over. As a sector, we can longer pretend that enlisting privileged donors to re-paint a school achieves our goals for social transformation. Instead, we must increase opportunities for the people that we work with, so that they can become powerful agents of change in their own communities. It’s the only way to eliminate the need for institutionalized charity altogether.
As published in the Globe and Mail Leadership Lab Series in April 2021