Grappling with an Intimidating Possibility: Advocacy
December 16, 2010 | Mike Morrice
Sustainable Waterloo Region has historically been a non-profit focused on service delivery as a means of achieving our mission. Our mission, though it has evolved over the past three years, has always had the word ‘collaborative’ in it. And collaboration has been a core value since the beginning, while continuing to define the organization. Personally, this approach has always motivated me. While I recognize the need for many types of eNGOs, including more confrontational groups like the Rainforest Action Network and Greenpeace, one of Sustainable Waterloo Region’s strengths has been our acute focus on a collaborative approach, across all of our work.
To-date, our collaborative approach has led to a clear distinction between our work and any type of advocacy. Our non-codified policy has always been that we are a non-partisan organization with no advocacy activity. Given our commitment to an inclusive, collaborative model, we have never put ourselves in a situation that might compromise the success of this approach. So when I’ve been pushed to comment by the media on a particular policy or political event such as COP 15, I have done my best to stick to the clear need for our political leaders to show leadership with respect to the business case for sustainability – both for ecological and economical reasons – without any reference to what specific policy options might accomplish this.
Several recent events have tested our definition of this approach however. First, we had a municipal election and several volunteers felt we should have a voice of some kind. As a result, I wrote an op-ed in The Record urging voters to ask meaningful questions with respect to sustainability if they would like to really engage political candidates on the issue.
Next, the Canadian Senate recently voted against Bill C-311 without any debate, after it had been passed in the House of Commons this past spring. This bill was the only federal legislation on climate change and would have bound the federal government to set regulations to establish targets to bring GHG emissions 25% below a 1990 baseline by 2020 and set a long-term target to bring emissions 80% below 1990 levels by 2050.
I, like many others (including many on our team), was deeply disappointed by this result. As an organization though, there was nothing we could do. This bill has many supporters but also many detractors, some of which we risk alienating if we took a position on the bill as an organization. Worse yet, there could be elements of the bill which we’re unaware of and which might show our Senate to have made a wise decision. Truthfully, no one at Sustainable Waterloo Region has read the bill in full, and we have limited internal expertise to compile a thorough critique of the failed legislation. And so, Jenn – our Social Media Manager – and I had to discuss whether the term ‘strike down’ was too charged when we tweeted about the bill getting put to an end. We decided to use the wording, and I felt like we were pushing the envelope!
Most recently, this past weekend a rally was held for light rail transit (LRT). Sustainable Waterloo Region does not have a public stance on LRT. The organization has never had any stance on policy at this level – rather, if I was pushed by the media, I would likely comment on our support for more active transit options and making it easier for people to leave their cars at home – again because there are environmental and economic benefits to doing so (just ask John Hill at the Region how much a parking space costs them every year to maintain!). To have an opinion on LRT though would be challenging –who are we to assess the urban planning decision of regional staff & Council? How can Sustainable Waterloo Region assess whether our region can afford the project? In short, with current resources, we can’t. Again, in doing so we risk potentially alienating many of our supporters. But all that said, again as an individual, I am supportive of LRT. I think it’s worth the investment, particularly when compared to the cost of business as usual. So, I went to the rally. On a weekend. On my own time. And I deftly stood behind a sign when I saw media taking pictures!
In light of these events, many of our volunteers and staff have begun to question Sustainable Waterloo Region’s lack of a codified advocacy policy, myself included. Some of our members have even asked us what we’re doing to help bring about local policy change, given the changes they’re making in their operations. And I’ve also been reading Forces for Good – on the recommendation of a good friend from Pathways to Education – where I’ve been learning about several high-impact not-for-profits that have benefitted tremendously from their abilities to balance advocacy and service.
So we discussed it at a team meeting in late November, and this resulted in a team of 5 staff & volunteers interested in championing the creation of a clear direction for Sustainable Waterloo Region with respect to political advocacy.
We have also discussed how and if any advocacy work could fit within the strategic direction that our Board approved earlier this year, namely our three Strategic Approaches: Facilitating Collaborative Dialogue, Measuring Action, and Celebrating Impact. As a team, we agreed that some forms of advocacy or lobbying could meet these.
And so, these discussions as a team then led me to put advocacy on the agenda at our most recent Board meeting in early December – to first of all discuss as a Board, but also with a recommendation that these interested staff & volunteers put together a framework that will guide future decision-making when it comes to advocacy. This framework would prepare Sustainable Waterloo Region to respond to future federal and local policy, in whatever way we agree on as a group.
Truthfully, we might decide to stay silent as an organization and focus on service delivery programs, like the Regional Carbon Initiative. Or it might be that we provide a communication medium for our members to voice their concerns to policy makers. Or that we do take a stance on certain policy issues – maybe local ones, or maybe stick with a focus on policy related to GHG emission reductions for now?
Of course I don’t have these answers yet. And that’s a good thing – the framework we come up with will come from discussions across the organization and with many of our key stakeholders, be it Regional Carbon Initiative members, event sponsors, previous event attendees, etc… Our decision will be well-founded in research and best practices from other leading, high-impact non-profits. And it will hopefully unify the shared vision of our volunteers, staff and Board.
I’m excited to begin this project – it’s another opportunity for us to define the type of organization and impact that Sustainable Waterloo Region will have in the future. And I hope to report back here with an update once progress is made over the next few months.
In the meantime, let me know if you would like to help at all. Does your organization have a template for the type of framework I’m describing above that you would be willing to share? Do you have any government relations or advocacy experience that you could lend to this project, maybe even just for a 30min phone call with the project team? Or do you know someone that does? Maybe you have a suggestion for the process, or critique of our approach to advocacy to-date?
Feel free to email me or leave a comment below – I’d love to hear from you!