By: Kiran Gurm and Kirsten Boda
In the nonprofit sector, the terms advocacy and lobbying are often interpreted synonymously due to potential overlap and lack of understanding, creating uncertainty for both charities and nonprofits alike. However, because organizations inherently act as advocates for the individuals, families, and communities they support, as well as the issues they exist to address, advocacy is central to who they are. Thus, whether they realize it or not, most organizations are already engaged in some form of advocacy. This blog provides an overview of lobbying versus advocacy in the context of Alberta to support organizations to engage openly and actively in advocacy.
Confusion around lobbying and advocacy arises due to fear over engaging in the political process, uncertainty in funding relationships, and the desire for an organization to keep government partners ‘on their good side’. We often hear from those working in the sector that once the word advocacy enters into a mission statement, theory of change, or organizational strategy alarm bells will sound with the potential for negative implications down the road. This blog, by Alexa Briggs of CCVO and Liz Sutherland of ONN, discusses the impact of regulations and policies that create an advocacy chill among nonprofits.
It is important for organizations to know that advocacy is a broad term that is not clearly defined. There are a host of activities that are considered advocacy but not lobbying. For example, preparing and submitting a bid or grant application can be considered advocacy. Almost all nonprofits and charities engage in advocacy daily, as they promote awareness of a cause or the ability to address issues and change public opinions or perceptions. We are all change-makers, and therefore advocacy is part of the DNA of who we are and what we do. Specifically for registered charities, according to the Canada Revenue Agency, as long as an organization’s advocacy activities further their charitable purpose, there is no limit on their activities. This advocacy spectrum created by the Ontario Nonprofit Network provides a useful overview of different advocacy activities ranging from general advocacy such as joining a coalition or network to direct lobbying such as organizing a lobbying day. Further, CCVO has created an Everyday Advocacy Guide for nonprofits.
Simply put, advocacy is an umbrella under which lobbying falls. This means that while not all advocacy is lobbying, all lobbying is advocacy. Lobbying entails complex laws and regulation that differs from one jurisdiction to the next, is highly regulated by legislation, and guided by a code of conduct. Applying for a grant becomes lobbying if an organization were to meet with a public office holder outside the application process in an attempt to influence their decision. It is also important to note that your organization can communicate with a public officer holder about your organization, however, the communication transitions into lobbying once there is an official “ask” being made.
Federally, The Government of Canada defines lobbying as certain types of communication, for payment, with public office holders , such as: making, developing or amending legislation, regulations, policies, or programs; awarding of federal grants, contributions, or other financial benefits; and awarding federal government contracts and arranging meetings between clients and a public officer (in the case of consultant lobbyists). The Lobbying Act sets out principles to ensure transparency and accountability in lobbying of federal public office holders while the Lobbyist Code of Conduct lays out principles for lobbyists. Most lobbying activity with the federal government has to be registered, however, under federal regulations, nonprofits may conduct lobbying activities and not file registration if the cumulative lobbying activities of all employees does not constitute 20% or more of one person’s duties over a month. It is important to note that lobbying does not include oral or written submissions to parliamentary committees or proceedings that are a matter of public record, exchanges about the interpretation or application of a law or regulation, and requests for information to the government. 
In Alberta, under the Lobbyists Act, lobbying is similarly defined as communication with a public office holder, done either directly or through grassroots communication. The communication could be in an attempt to influence everything from the development of a legislative proposal or introduction of a bill to the awarding of grants and decisions to transfer businesses from the crown to the private sector or vice versa. However, in Alberta, nonprofits that are not established to serve management, union, or professional interests, and do not have a majority of members which are profit-seeking enterprises or representatives of profit seeking enterprises are exempt from registration as a lobbyist. With this exemption, individuals are not subject to the Lobbyist Act and do not need to register as a lobbyist for lobbying done on behalf of their nonprofit organization.
It comes as no surprise that nonprofits find the term advocacy confusing and are hesitant to openly and actively engage in this process. However, it is crucial for nonprofits to lend their expertise and collective experience to the policy-making process. As organizations that exist to serve society, we should not be afraid to advocate as it is at the core of who we are and the reason we engage in this work that we do.
Below are some resources to help you determine if you are engaging in lobbying:
- A test created by the Office of the Ethics Commisioner of Alberta to help determine if you are a lobbyist can be found here.
- A decision tree to determine if you are exempt from registering as a lobbyist in in Alberta can be found here.
- A resource that provides lobbying at a glance at the federal level can be found here.
Senior Research and Policy Associate
PolicyWise for Children and Families
Calgary Chamber of Voluntary Organizations (CCVO)
 Any federal government employee, including MPs and Senators, public servants appointed by a minister or the cabinet, officers, directors or employees of any federal board, commission or tribunal, a member of the Canadian armed forces or a member of the RCMP.
The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this post belong solely to the author and do not represent those of The Nonprofit Vote or its Partner Organizations. Interested in publishing a guest post on our blog? Connect with us today at [email protected].