Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Nonprofit and Social Economy Research

System Change Agents: A Profile of Policy-Focused Grantmaking Foundation Engagement in Public Policy

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Nonprofit and Social Economy Research

System Change Agents: A Profile of Policy-Focused Grantmaking Foundation Engagement in Public Policy

Article excerpt


If we are really interested in transformational change and systemic change then we can't bypass the public policy lever. Whether government or school boards-public policy broadly defined-we have to go to where policy is being made in order to change things.

-Foundation 6

The very fact that foundations can operate independently of political parties, government, and public administration creates opportunities for the support of causes that mainstream politics will either bypass or be reluctant to embrace (Anheier, 2005). Others observers have been even more explicit: "The privacy of foundations is a privilege awarded to them because of their contribution to society, not an excuse to ignore the responsibilities of citizenship in a democratic society" (McIlnay, 1998, p. 101).

Within an ever-evolving philanthropic sector, Canadian grantmaking foundations are well positioned to effect societal change through innovative tools and strategies and a wide range of roles available to them. This includes the autonomy of foundations to address issues that are either controversial or peripheral to government policy (Frumkin, 2006). While program activities, both direct and indirect, naturally dominate the grantmaking landscape, there is a growing realization by public and private foundations alike that downstream community issues are not isolated from upstream policy and regulatory practices. For example, there is little doubt that policies in which foundations have played a part, such as the Registered Disability Savings Plan, carbon taxes, early childhood education, and social procurement policies, have made a contribution to the quality of life of Canadians.

Grantmaking foundations trying to leverage their influence and improve their impact are increasingly being urged by foundation sector leaders to embrace advocacy and public policy grantmaking as a way to substantially enhance their results and advance their missions (Cave, 2016; Northcott, 2016; Philanthropic Foundations Canada, 2016). In fact, public policy grantmaking has been described as "one of the most powerful tools available to foundations for creating real change" (Alliance for Justice, 2004, p. 1; see also Coffman, 2008). For example, the Margaret & Wallace McCain Family Foundation and the Atkinson Charitable Foundation were both instrumental in supporting the movement for early childhood education in Ontario (Turgeon, 2014).

The purpose of this article is twofold: to present a theoretical framework that can speak to the question of the ways in which Canadian grantmaking foundations engage in public policy, and to present the findings of indepth interviews with 13 of Canada's policy-focused grantmaking foundations with an active and sustained engagement in public policy. The article concludes with some preliminary observations about the state, scope, and impact of these policy activities. To do this, it draws on academic literature, foundation websites, reports, and in-depth interviews with policy-focused Canadian grantmaking foundations that are actively engaged in public policy.

As this article will demonstrate, there is considerably more to the formulation and implementation of public policy than items that reach the front pages of newspapers or the back rooms of legislatures. There is, we posit, a wide range of roles that grantmaking foundations can play in the public policy process, from engaging or funding primary research to monitoring policy implementation and community impact. While the Canada Revenue Agency stipulates that as registered charities, 10 percent of a foundation's resources can be directed toward political activities, only a fraction of public policy activities can be considered political (Canada Revenue Agency, 2003). For example, under present law, a charity is not restricted from providing information and expressing its views in briefs to government to change laws or policies. Charitable activities (not advocacy) also include distributing research to politicians or presenting a research report to a standing committee, and organizing or participating in policy development working groups (Carter & Man, 2010). …

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