Top 10 Takeaways and Actions from Maytree Policy School

#followthefellowship blog entry by Michelle Baldwin

Policy impacts everything around us. Government policies have innumerable effects on living conditions, influencing everything from funding levels to the programs and services that are made available to our communities. Providing front line services gives nonprofits an advantage in policy conversations; through our organizations, Canadians communicate their values, hopes and ideals and, in turn, we act as an organized expression of these civic desires.  

When we work with government officials and agencies, we must reframe our relationship to them and recognize them as partners, rather than engaging them with an unproductive 'us against them' mentality. As the lines become blurred between the nonprofit, business and government sectors, with each exploring new avenues that broaden their social and economic value, it can be helpful for nonprofits to consider how government is changing. In the nonprofit sector we seek the change we want to see in the world, and policy is a major lever of influence to make that change possible. 

To advance my knowledge of evidence-informed policy solutions, I participated in The Maytree Policy School along with a group of other policy professionals. Over the course of six months, we developed our capacity to engage effectively in the public policy process and to think about how government works and how it is changing. The Maytree Foundation believes that “when the nonprofit sector engages in shaping public policy, we end up with better decisions, better laws, and better programs.” 

Here are my takeaways from The Maytree Policy School, and the actions that Pillar has taken so far as a result of my learnings.


Top 10 Takeaways 


  1. Think Cross-partisan, rather than Nonpartisan

Many nonprofits and charities often reference their nonpartisan stance. We have policies that state this imperative, and in the case of charities we are bound by Canadian Revenue Agency rules to be nonpartisan. When I heard about cross-partisanship, I felt the term cross-partisan better reflected the approach we take at Pillar. Similarly to the problem with the word “nonprofit” sharing more about what we are not than about what we are, “nonpartisan” also comes from a deficit mindset. Working across all parties and connecting with them early in our advocacy efforts, reflects an approach rooted in engagement, partnership and action. If your policy issue can be put on hold for four years because you lack alignment with the current government you may need to ask yourself how important the issue is.

  1. Start with Questions and Be Solutions Focused

When we ask questions before producing answers it leads to better solutions. Collecting and analyzing data, formulating hypotheses and assessing a range of policy options and solutions leads to good policy. When we focus only on the problems we can miss important information, perspectives and solutions. Pausing to consider whether we are creating any unintended consequences and ripple effects with our policy proposals and solutions is critical to successful and sustainable systems change.

  1. Harness the Power of Networks

Networks have the power to test and build consensus and to broker solutions. We can leverage a wide range of networks to serve as knowledge mobilizers around information and resources in order to drive innovation and inform policy development. We can harness the political capital of networks to better serve our communities. 

  1. Establish Cross-sector Partnerships

Cross-sector partnerships enable all sectors to contribute to, identify and implement cross-sector solutions. Establishing trust and practicing radical empathy are key factors in creating enduring and effective collaborations, so be ruthless when making decisions about which partners fit your public policy strategy; your success depends on how effectively you work together.

  1. Embrace Radical Optimism

When we bring forward policy we should offer proof of possibility and share an aspirational endgame, including more allies, more resources, more support. As rightly stated by Guillermo del Toro, Oscar-winning filmmaker, director and producer, “Optimism is not uncool, it is rebellious, daring, and vital.”

  1. Value the Many, and Not the One 

To build better movements around policy we should put value in the many, and not the one, and cultivate leadership at all levels. This includes distributing policy development across a team within our organization. Additionally, having varied partners and allies across sectors in our policy efforts will strengthen collective leadership and influence.

  1. Engage Those with Lived Experience

When developing policy that addresses the needs of specific populations, it's important to engage those with lived experience early and often. Having a participatory process is crucial to developing policies that are based on true needs rather than assumptions. When we engage individuals with lived experience as authors of systems innovation and policy change our proposed solutions resonate with government.

  1. Understand the Value of Social Research and Development (Social R&D)

Nonprofits often lack the capacity, resources and data they need to rigorously measure the impact of their work. Further, it can be challenging to access the right evidence and research to inform decisions that lead to continuous improvement and strong policy strategy. Just like the private sector, investment in research and development is critical for achieving our objectives; for nonprofits  it is required for evidence informed policy. Research results are a far greater tool for persuading government than relying on anecdotal observations. Evidence has become a valuable currency.

  1. Communicate Your Story

To ensure that your message resonates with your audience, adopt the language used by the government you are bringing your policy strategy forward to. Sharing a compelling story that is personal and evokes empathy and understanding will better illuminate the policy issue. When we share values, emotion and action, in our discussions and in our written pieces, it connects those we hope to influence to a storyline of the human experience. Practicing radical empathy and putting yourself in the shoes of the “other” to understand their thinking and perspective can change minds and hearts and generate responses that address the issues at hand.

  1. Appreciate Relentless Incrementalism

Public policy takes time and requires patience and tenacity. To practice 'everyday advocacy' requires an acceptance of relentless incrementalism. I thought I had previously understood this lengthy timeline, yet after hearing advocacy stories about campaigns that took 5-10 years of sustained effort (or longer!) I was reminded of the stick-to-itiveness that's foundational to policy change.

Top 10 Actions Pillar has Taken 

  1. Board Nomination - We added government relations as a desired skill set in the recruitment process and identified this as a priority with the candidates.

  2. Learning & Development - In our All About Boards Series, offered this fall 2019, our last session is now titled “Boards & Government Relations.” In this session, we will explore the role of a Board of Directors in public policy and government relations. Sara Middleton, Director of Community Impact, United Way Elgin-Middlesex, who was a participant in last year’s policy school, will facilitate this session along with me.

  3. Government Relations Committee - Pillar’s Board has expanded the mandate of its existing Policy Committee to include government relations. We are engaging our membership with experience in this area to be part of this committee.

  4. Pillar at a Glance – We created a briefing document for our meetings with City Council and the Mayor to provide an overview of our organization that we could leave behind and send as a follow-up document.

  5. Mayor Meetings - For our meetings with the Mayor, we collaborated with the CEOs of London Community Foundation and United Way Elgin-Middlesex to bring a unified voice forward for London’s nonprofit sector.

  6. Policy Conversation: Navigating the New Economic Reality – In partnership with the Ontario Nonprofit Network, London Community Foundation and United Way Elgin-Middlesex, Pillar organized a policy conversation with over 80 attendees on June 18, 2019. We will host further conversations on the topic in the future. 

  7. Presentation at Ontario Budget Consultation - I presented at the Ontario Budget Consultation to advocate for the funding needs of the nonprofit sector, providing compelling evidence of the positive economic impact the sector brings to the province. 

  8. National Council for Nonprofits Learning Confab – I attended this learning opportunity along with three staff members from the Ontario Nonprofit Network and a staff member of Imagine Canada. At this conference, nonprofit networks from across the US came together to explore building better movements, embedding equity and inclusion and creating a network that enables organizations to lean on one another.

  9. Investment Readiness Fund – We reached out to the Federal Government to advocate for a local and place-based social finance focus for the new Investment Readiness Fund to ensure that the monies and support reach the local level. We also secured a meeting with the Director of Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC) and CEO of Community Foundations of Canada, who will steward this new fund. 

  10. Pillar Policy Strategy - As part of Maytree Policy School we were provided with support to develop an organizational policy strategy. To develop this strategy I consulted with our staff and Board. It is still in draft form, as it will be brought forward to the newly formed Policy & Government Relations Committee. Also check out our overall public policy priorities and engagement.

As our political environments change, we need to honour the ‘fear frame’ and hold onto the ‘hope frame.’ Even in times of massive change, there still lies opportunity. As a network, Pillar will continue to bring forward the voice of the sector and be a connector of information and resources. We will continue to partner with our allies. 


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