Lobbying tips from the experts

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For many nonprofits, the mere thought of approaching a government body for any kind of "ask" can be daunting.

Yet lobbying, defined here as communicating with public office holders in an attempt to influence government decisions, can be an essential part of a nonprofit's work in reaching its goals.

Those in the sector should at least know the basics on how it gets done, and how to properly conduct oneself while doing it.

Let's get ethical

Christopher Holz, a Toronto-based public affairs consultant with Campbell Strategies who once also held numerous roles in the Ontario government — including being senior advisor on policy to the Ontario Minister of Finance and Chair of the Treasury Board/Management Board of Cabinet — shared his expert views on nonprofit lobbying with CharityVillage® in a recent interview.

First off, he counsels, it's important for government to hear from nonprofits. "Nonprofits should absolutely be engaging decision-makers. They have a legitimate role to play in public policy development." Further, Holz says that each ask has a specific process, timing requirement, and group of decision-makers that will be relevant to engage.

In any approach to government, he says, nonprofits should first tailor a very specific ask of government in addition to determining what government decision-making process is relevant to reaching your goals.

"Everything else flows from this. Without a clear sense of what it is that you want — which is actually pretty common — or a sense of which government decision-making process is relevant, many organizations, corporations, citizens' groups, NFPs or otherwise, can find they end up spinning their wheels without making any progress," he says.

One other critical factor before starting out on the lobbying trail: know your limits and restrictions under Canadian and provincial laws.

Register your lobbying activities

In Ontario, home to the highest number of charities and nonprofits in Canada, knowing one's restrictions with regard to lobbying means familiarizing oneself with the 1998 Lobbyists Registration Act.

Cathryn Motherwell, director of the Office of the Integrity Commissioner of Ontario (OIOC), notes it's important that all nonprofits conducting lobbying activities in the province be officially registered under that edict.

The Act categorizes nonprofits as organizations that include charitable organizations or associations, coalitions, advocacy groups, trade unions or labour organizations, chambers of commerce or boards of trade.

Below, Motherwell outlines some of the rules for registering under the Act. They include:

  • To register an organization online in Ontario, go to http://lobbyist.oico.on.ca and select Lobbyist Login and then Getting Started.
  • Nonprofit organizations are required to submit one registration under the name of its senior officer (this is the case whether the senior officer is lobbying or not).
  • The employee(s) (or in-house lobbyist(s)) are listed within the organization's registration.
  • If a paid employee in an organization, either alone or together with other employees in the organization, spends a significant part of their time communicating with public office holders in an attempt to influence government activities, that person(s) is considered an in-house lobbyist and must be registered.
  • The term "significant part of duties" is said by regulation to occur when the accumulation of lobbying activities over a three-month period reaches the threshold of 20% of either an individual employee's time, or the combined times of more than one employee.

"You can still register as an in-house lobbyist if you do not meet the 20 per cent threshold out of an abundance of caution, but it is not a requirement of the Act," she says. "The senior officer is responsible for submitting a registration within two months of the organization employing an in-house lobbyist. Nonprofit organizations are required to re-register within 30 days after the expiration of each six-month period."

Once you've done this, you're ready to go.

As an interesting aside, in March, the Canada Revenue Agency's Charities Directorate produced a webcast, available here, giving instruction to charities on what can and cannot be done in their activities in regards to political activism.

It's an informative watch. The CRA also has a link to the transcript of the broadcast here.

Where to break the ice?

According to Holz, one of the cardinal lobbying mistakes made by nonprofits is placing undue focus on setting up a meeting with a minister. There are other ways to influence government, he says.

"Sometimes this can be helpful, [but] too often a meeting with the minister, especially on its own, is insufficient for reaching your objectives. The reason for this is because most decisions of government require more than just one person being on board: even if they are a minister," he said.

The lesson? Contact many people within the relevant ministry to find out who consults with the minister, who helps shape policy and if necessary (and you have the budget for it), hire an outside consultant to help figure out whom it's best to speak with. And make sure you do speak with as many people as possible. Government wants you in the loop.

Michael Downey, president and CEO of Tennis Canada, echoes Holz's views and advises fellow nonprofit executives that it's all a matter of speaking up and engaging with government.

"To grow your relationships with the government bodies, you really just need to engage with their offices," Downey says. "You need to start asking the right questions to see if there are opportunities that can help grow the capacity of your organization. More times than not, if they can't help you, they will connect you with the right people who can."

Believe it or not, government representatives and decision-makers actually value the input of lobbying nonprofits, Holz says.

"When I was in government in the Ministry of Finance, I met with alot of nonprofits in this way, because Finance is ultimately responsible for making most of the spending decisions in the provincial government. And our feeling was that nonprofits absolutely have a right to engage their government like any other private-sector entity might. I would often find that nonprofits engaging with us would be more helpful, because they had a broader interest than, let's say, the narrower interest of private companies," he states.

"To a certain degree, I also found that nonprofits had a better sense of public policy decision-making...that's just an observation. But I never felt that the nonprofit leaders engaging me were in any way being unhelpful or that they shouldn't have been speaking to me or my colleagues. Quite the opposite; at the end of the day, if I wasn't hearing from all groups, then there could be a problem."

Holz believes that nonprofit leaders may be better listeners than their for-profit counterparts when it comes to working with government. He said this is probably because most nonprofits have "some level of regular interaction with government." This fact should help many executive directors and upper level management in any interaction with government officials.

You don't know if you don't ask

Just how effective can lobbying be? That's a complex question, Holz says. The short answer: it can't hurt to try.

"At the end of the day, organizations that engage government have a much better chance at reaching their objectives than if they stay out of it. I would also say that success sometimes comes down to timing: if you engage too early, or too late, you may miss the decision-making window for your issue," he says.

According to Holz, if you miss the budget window, there's not much that can be done to assist you. It can sometimes take "a couple of budget cycles to get something funded or approved. It ultimately depends on the issue, the level of public pressure that exists, but also the volume of requests and competing interests that governments must balance."

Still, successful lobbying often comes down to the government's fiscal situation. In years where there's deficit, Holz says, it's significantly harder to get funding, if that's what you're looking for. "It's not impossible, but more difficult. In surplus periods, the reality is, it's a different situation."

When governments are running deficits and people are looking for new options in government, might the lead-up to elections be a good time for lobbying?

"It depends on the issue and the organization. And then you need to decide whether to engage the[current] government or to engage all the political parties. But there's no question that early engagement has more influence on decision-making and platform statements," Holz says.

Andy Levy-Ajzenkopf is president of WordLaunch professional writing services in Toronto. He can be reached at andy@wordlaunch.com.

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