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Not-for-profits need a plan to determine whether to take a stand or policy position

policy positionNot-for-profits should continuously assess current and emerging issues to determine whether to take a stand or policy position. Emerging issues may be strategically important to the organization and are often time-sensitive; the opportunity to take a stand on an issue may be fleeting because attention may soon be re-directed to something new. Not-for-profits will need ground rules or a framework for policy positions to effectively address emerging issues; the time to figure out a framework is not when the need arises.

Three key questions which you need to ask when taking policy positions are:

  1. Can the organization take a stand on the issue? As discussed in Not-for-Profit PolicyPro published by First Reference (in chapter NP 3.04 – Lobbying), a charitable organization must be careful not to jeopardize its charitable status by ensuring that it only participates in allowable political activities, and does not run afoul of lobbying legislation. Additionally, organizations need to consider the impact of taking policy positions on their grants or public funding. For example, there may be restrictions in funding agreements relating to whether or not grant funding may be used for any political activities.
  2. Does the organization really (strategically) want to take a stand on a particular issue? It may be best to avoid very polarising subjects around the time of a major fundraising campaign, for example.
  3. How should the organization take its stand — how involved should the organization be? This will depend on the organization’s mandate and its resources. For instance, the organization should consider whether to undertake the advocacy activity on its own or partner with others, including other not-for-profits. A useful practice is to monitor or follow what like-minded organizations are doing. Their activities may provide ideas or opportunities, particularly if those organizations are national associations for interest groups or other not-for-profits.

The following are six additional considerations for developing policy positions:

  1. Create an Advocacy Committee of the Board of Directors.
  2. Ensure that there is ad-hoc participation or ex-officio membership from the broader organization, including front-line managers or the ED/CEO, for example.
  3. Make it clear that any employee, board member or even service-user can propose policy positions that the Advocacy Committee should consider. Particularly in this social media era, other individuals may be more clued-in to emerging opportunities than the Advocacy Committee. Additionally, as persons who are in the trenches, front-line workers may be more aware and have first-hand knowledge of issues of interest to the Advocacy Committee.
  4. Establish ground rules for policy positions that the organization will undertake, including the following:
    • The issue must be directly related to the organization’s mandate.
    • The organization, because of its board members or its target market, must have the required expertise or knowledge to effectively advance a public policy position.
    • The organization must undertake a cost-benefit analysis for each policy position it considers, examining: the benefits of taking a particular policy position; the desired and expected outcomes; and the resources which will be required to support the policy position. Consider all costs, including time, money and, if the issue is potentially contentious, goodwill. Also, consider low-cost approaches. For instance, it will not be costly to post a policy position on the organization’s website or Tweet the organization’s position on the issue.
  5. Monitor the time spent on public policy issues. This will help you to track where resources go, and determine whether you are carrying out lobbying activities as defined in the applicable lobbying statute.
  6. Remember that that policy positions and the resulting advocacy activities take many different forms. For example:
    • Community advocacy: which involves changing public perceptions or attitudes.
    • Legislative or regulatory advocacy: which involves efforts to influence the legal or regulatory framework.
    • Legal advocacy: which includes initiating or participating in lawsuits which benefit target populations. This is one of the more difficult ways to articulate a policy position because litigation is usually expensive.

Apolone Gentles, JD, CPA,CGA, FCCA, Bsc (Hons)

Apolone Gentles is a CPA,CGA and Ontario lawyer and editor with over 20 years of business experience. She has held senior leadership roles in non-profit organizations, leading finance, human resources, information technology and facilities teams. She has also held senior roles in audit and assurance services at a “Big Four” audit firm. Apolone has also lectured in Auditing, Economics and Business at post-secondary schools. Read more here
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