Forget Charitable Giving. The World Needs Advocacy Patrons.

The story of ForestEthics’ decision to split off its advocacy work into a separate, non-charitable group has been all over my social media feeds for the past few days. It comes hard on the heels of David Suzuki’s resignation from the board of the foundation that bears his name, and Tzeporah Berman’s resignation from Greenpeace; both of these environmental heroes have stated they will be taking more active political roles, and due to the limits placed on nonprofit organizations’ levels of advocacy work, they cannot perform those roles under the auspices of a charitable organization.

I’ve been reading Dan Pallotta’s book Uncharitable: How Restraints on Nonprofits Undermine Their Potential; it’s a heady critique of the nonprofit ethos in North America. (His focus is on the US, but much of the book is equally applicable in Canada, despite our different funding ecosystem & government regulations.) He asserts that nonprofit organizations as they currently exist are irrevocably hampered by not only the legal restrictions placed on charitable organizations, but even more so by public biases that demand that administrative overhead (i.e. salaries, infrastructure investments, etc.) be kept to a minimum, that advertising and marketing is wasteful, and so on. He points out the many logical inconsistencies in our belief system about how nonprofits ought to operate – for example, we expect them to solve the world’s most pressing problems, while keeping salaries at such low levels that they cannot compete with the compensation levels the for-profit sector can offer (thus ensuring that most of the world’s best minds will be lured to the corporate world).

The work that ForestEthics Advocacy Association is about to undertake is of critical importance, not just to hard-core environmentalists, but to the vast majority of Canadians who say they care about the environment. They’ll be fighting big oil (and not just Canadian oil companies, let’s remember – though the Harper government likes to talk up Canada’s natural resources sector, there are a bunch of foreign companies who stand to profit from this move, including at least one Chinese firm) over the Enbridge oil pipeline, which if approved, will snake from Alberta’s tar sands to the British Columbia coast to facilitate the export of oil.

This fight can’t be fought under the auspices of charitable organizations. Charities in Canada are restricted to spending 10% or less of their budget on advocacy initatives. Furthermore, Harper’s government has, by at least one account, labeled environmental charities enemies of the state, and has been taking extraordinary measures to limit their power.

So we need to pull together our resources and funnel them to these advocacy initiatives, charitable or not. Yes, this means forgoing the small tax break we get when we give to charitable organizations. It may mean letting go of some of the beliefs we have about what constitutes charitable work, and challenging our assumptions about what activism is supposed to look like – because we need everyone to suit up for this battle. We can’t afford the kind of infighting and divisiveness that progressives are (in)famous for.

We have two exciting opportunities here: one, to stand up in defense of Canada’s environment, present and future; and two, to set a new course for nonprofits in Canada that looks beyond the traditional charity model and asks what strategies, tactics and structures are most appropriate and have the greatest impact on the task at hand.