Tools for leaders & organizers

Collaborating for change in today’s political environment

Public policy doesn’t happen in a bubble. Change is often spurred by an alignment among policy makers, influencers, grassroots groups and thought-leaders that together shape priorities that translate to action. This session explored how non-profit leaders and organizations can successfully build relationships and alliances that can help move your public policy goals forward.

This was the fifth in a five-part webinar series on strengthening your nonprofit’s capacity to engage in public policy co-presented by Maytree and the Ontario Nonprofit Network. Find the full series here.


  • Pedro Barata, United Way Greater Toronto
    Pedro Barata is United Way Greater Toronto’s Senior Vice President, Community Impact & Strategy. Pedro works with United Way teams and community partners to develop and implement strategies that can drive impact and change. Pedro provides strategic leadership at United Way in the areas of community investment and partnerships, communications, policy and public affairs, research and evaluation, as well as cross-organizational strategy. Pedro’s work and extensive volunteer activities in the non-profit sector span two decades, focused on public policy, community organizing and communications.
  • John Capobianco, FleishmanHillard
    John Capobianco is a senior vice president and senior partner and national practice lead for public affairs in FleishmanHillard’s Toronto office. With over 22 years of grassroots political experience at all three levels of government, John offers a strong, seasoned and influential voice in public affairs. This experience has enabled him to build an extensive political network, which he can leverage to the benefit of organizations looking to engage with senior government officials.

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Webinar transcript

Tina Edan:                          

Hello. Welcome to today’s webinar, Collaborating for change in today’s political environment. My name is Tina Edan, and I am the lead on the Maytree Policy School. Today’s session is being co-presented by the Ontario Nonprofit Network and Maytree. It’s the final webinar in our five-part series, Nonprofits Driving Public Policy. The series serves to strengthen the capacity of nonprofits to actively participate in the public policy process.

The series has featured the content of two Maytree programs. The first is Civics Xchange, which is a civic literacy program that uses a resident-centered approach to civics, community building, and advocacy. And the other is the Maytree Policy School, which serves to build the policy capacity of organizations.

Today we have about 100 people joining us online. Thank you for being here. We’ve got people from across Ontario, starting up north in Timmins, going through to Ottawa, across the Greater Toronto Area, Toronto, Scarborough, Mississauga. We’ve got folks in Burlington and a few in Vancouver. If you’re joining us from the West Coast, welcome.

You’re representing organizations of different sizes. We’ve got large multi-service organizations to very small grassroots groups joining us on the line. You’re working on a whole range of issues. There’s a lot of interest out there in education, culture and recreation, health, social services, housing, literacy. We’re really excited to hear your questions toward the latter part of the webinar.

You’ll see on your screens you have a question box. We encourage you to type in the questions as you think of them. You’ll also see that there are different components on your screen. Feel free to adjust them as you’d like. The presentation that you’ll see will be available at the end of the webinar. We’ll send that out as well.

This is a very timely webinar. We have just gone through a major political shift in Ontario. It is a great pleasure to have with us today two experts who have worked both inside and outside of government. I’d like to welcome today Pedro Barata from United Way Greater Toronto, who is also a faculty member with Maytree Policy School.

Pedro is United Way’s senior vice president, community impact and strategy. He provides strategic leadership working with United Way teams and community partners to develop and implement strategies that can drive impact and change. Pedro has worked and volunteered in the nonprofit sector, focusing on public policy, community organizing, and communications for the last two decades.

We also have with us John Capobianco from FleishmanHillard. John is the senior vice president and senior partner and national practice lead for public affairs in FleishmanHillard’s Toronto office. He brings over 22 years of grassroots political experience at all three levels of government. He offers a strong, seasoned, and influential voice in public affairs.

He actually started his career in the federal government. I understand that you worked on both Mayor Tory and Mayor Crombie’s winning mayoral campaigns as well at the municipal level. This experience has enabled him to build an extensive political network which he leverages to the benefit of organizations looking to engage with senior government officials. Thank you both for being here today.

John Capobianco:

Thank you.

Pedro Barata:

Thank you.

Tina Edan:

In terms of the format today, I’m going to ask Pedro to start us off. He’s going to talk about how non-profit leaders and organizations can successfully build relationships and coalitions to further their public policy goals. We’ll then turn it over to John, and I’m going to ask him a few questions and ask him to take us inside the hallways of power at Queen’s Park and to talk a little bit about what’s going on in the government right now. I’ll ask them both a few questions, and then it’s over to you in the audience. Again, please type in your questions as we go along. Pedro.

Pedro Barata:                   

Thanks so much, Tina. I want to start off by just thanking you and Maytree for the fantastic leadership work that you’ve taken in so many ways and being this backbone to great ideas, some innovative and progressive policy thinking and organizing, and most recently in terms of leading a new policy school. I had a chance to meet some of the cohort that joined the first policy school, and there’s some real promise in the sector and I think a real desire to up our game when it comes to public policy and our engagement with government. So, thank you.

It’s always a pleasure to be in the ONN’s office. Thank you for welcoming us and always being a great host that tries to pull us all together and articulate an agenda that really reflects how powerful and relevant and connected we are to communities. I think that’s a very important mandate, and I think it will be especially important in the times ahead as we essentially draw up a new playbook for the new reality.

I’m really looking forward to today’s session and engaging with John, partly because it’s interesting to be in a position where we may be experts at some things but there are many things that are unknowns, and we’re just going to have to figure them out together and use all of our skills and expertise and insight to try and map out what that new playbook is going to be.

I really want to thank John for having said yes to being here with us today. Did not bat an eye. I don’t think you even checked your schedule. You just said, “Yes. I’ll do it.” John and FleishmanHillard HighRoad have been really, really great friends and partners with United Way. We’ve really relied on their good advice and contributions around complex stakeholder relations, around introductions to policymakers, advice on positioning. We’ve always found that there’s just a tremendous respect for what we do in the not-for-profit sector, and also just an intellectual curiosity about the work that we do and how important it is.

John also is a driver behind the Public Affairs Association of Canada, which is a great organization that pulls together really interesting conversations about the world of public affairs and public policy, and I invite you all to learn more about that association. I’ve learned more about government relations from attending those early-morning breakfasts than just about from anywhere else.

To just start the conversation — we are at a stage right now where we have a convergence of elections happening at the same time. It’s that sort of cycle when we have municipal elections coming up in the fall, we just had a provincial election, and we’ll see a federal election coming up next year. With all of those elections, it is really a time for us to take a step back and to think about our agenda moving forward.

At the municipal level, as we know, we’re going into the fall. Lots of interesting challenges and opportunities across our province here in Ontario. I’d just like to draw three points that I think we all need to be aware of.

The first one is that regional chairs in places like York and Peel and in other places are going to be elected by the people for the first time. That is quite significant because regional chairs I think will have more of a political role than they’ve had in the past, more of a leadership role. I think how that will play out in regions will be quite interesting, and I think the profile of regional chairs will also be much higher than it has been in the past.

We have to be conscious of that not just because it means extra work but because it means extra complexity, but also opportunities to shape agendas. That is a new reality that, as we head into the next few months, we need to be aware of.

The second one, in places like Toronto, is just the redrawn boundaries. What that means in terms of, yes, more work in terms of the number of seats that will be at play, but also what it means in terms of changing composition of councils. Each council represents one vote. We unite all of those votes around majorities. We tend to play a role in that sometimes, the not-for-profit sector. That’s just something we also need to be aware of in terms of how we plan.

Finally, in places like Toronto, just doing a little bit of early tea-leaf reading, we have a mayor who’s way out front just in terms of the likelihood of Mayor Tory being re-elected. Mayor Tory is going into the next election with a mandate that includes many of the things that I think are important for people who are on this call.

Mayor Tory has already talked about the importance of an affordable housing agenda. There’s a poverty reduction strategy that has been started. All of those things I think are really important legacy points for many of the mayors who are incumbents and who are going to be going into their next set of mandates. I think that we need to play a role in just solidifying what those mandates mean but also really roll up our sleeves to make them real. We have a great opportunity here to drive those.

At the provincial level, as Tina has mentioned, we do have a new government with a big mandate from the people of Ontario. When it comes to our work, there are few details around what exactly is going to happen. There are many unknowns. But there’s clear direction.

This is a government that was elected on fiscal discipline, on the notion that we need to get in and under the

of line-by-line reviews, that we need to make sure that we’re delivering value for money, and that everything that we do starts and ends with people on the ground and how it is that we and the government are making their lives better. Today, given that a throne speech is about to take place this afternoon, I hope that you will all understand that we will spend probably the vast majority of our time talking about that gentleman down there in the bottom left corner [reference to slide] and his new mandate and what that means.

At the federal level, this government is already pivoting, but I think is going to pivot more, from some serious policy heavy lifting over the past couple of years to more and more political mode. I have to say, and I think most of you in this webinar will agree, it’s been quite a robust and in some ways impressive track record that the federal government has built on social policy issues with the Child Tax Benefit, the Work Income Tax Benefit, the introduction of the National Housing Strategy, a poverty reduction strategy coming out any time soon. All of those things will now turn to implementation.

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But there’s a value proposition in terms of Toronto and other communities in Ontario which is about diversity, inclusion, people belonging, and us being in this together. It’s that in many ways which is a key differentiator and makes this such an amazing place to live. What we know is that poverty, growing income inequality, people feeling left behind, that is really at the heart of undermining the kinds of things that really make us love and appreciate our communities.

It’s important not just for our sector, but I think it’s really an important value proposition for the private sector as well in terms of wanting to locate here, wanting to live here, wanting to attract a strong workforce that wants to raise their kids in these wonderful communities in which we live. I think from a framing point of view we have to remind ourselves that we have a tremendous asset that we all together have to fight for, because there are real issues that we see every day in our communities that are going to undermine that shared value proposition of who we are.

With the latest tragedies that we’ve been seeing on the streets here in the GTA around youth violence, we have really taken a step back at United Way, and I think many other organizations are also taking a step back to ask ourselves, is our work the best that it can be in terms of actually meeting the needs of people who are dealing with precarious employment, who are dealing with affordable housing crunches, who are dealing with just a loss of hope and opportunity?

We’ve been at this for a long time and all of you will have been at your work for a long time. I think this is really an opportunity for us to not just put our best foot forward and talk about how great our work is. I think this also deserves an opportunity to do a little bit of a reset and to step back and ask, are we doing the work that we can really feel proud of, not just right now but in terms of delivering outcomes and results for people in four, five years down the road, and being honest about having that conversation.

Because, at the end of the day, our work for sure is about an investment in the kind of cities, regions, province that we all want to live in, but we can always get better. I think being upfront and honest about how it is that we can get better in the work that we do opens up a conversation which is authentic, which is about trust, which is about partnership, and how it is that we can leverage all of our different knowledge and everything that we know so that we can move forward. Now is a time to be external, but I would also venture to say that now is a great time to be introspective and to really have conversations amongst ourselves about how effective we are in our work.

Finally, there’s people, and we know that people are at the center of the provincial government’s mandate. And of course the best GR [government relations] strategy you can possibly have is that the things that you’re putting forward are the same things that politicians are seeing in the polls, that they’re seeing in the focus groups, and that they’re hearing on the doorsteps. There’s something about our sector that we all know, which is that we should — we are and we should — be really connected to everyday people, everyday communities, especially people who are likely to be frustrated for good reason that growing prosperity is not leading to the opportunities that they’re seeking.

In some ways, from a framing point of view, the conversations that we’re about to have with all kinds of governments, they’re partly about your voice and my voice, but they’re really about how we are a platform for what we’re hearing in communities. That may seem like sort of a subtle shift, but there’s something about it which is real and which really creates an accountability to how we do our work and how is it that we ensure that we’re not doing policy in the four walls of our offices and the four walls of our associations, but that we can authentically come to the table as a reflection of what’s happening in the community.

Of course, in all of this, we can’t lose our core values, and we can’t lose what we stand for and what we believe in. What this slide is really — and you all know this slide. And apologies that it’s a GTA-centered slide; that is where I live and that’s where United Way does its research. I’m sure that the patterns that you see here, in terms of growing polarization, are not that different in other parts of the province, and in fact in other parts of the country, for those of you out in Vancouver.

The reason I put up this slide is because we have seen an incredible period, depending on how you want to look at it. We have seen a period of incremental economic growth. The macro-indicators, in terms of what’s been happening in the province of Ontario, actually show job growth and GDP growth, and they show that business is growing.

The problem is that, despite economic growth, we continue to see pretty severe income polarization. We continue to see the growth of precarious employment. I think we should continue to keep our eye on the ball —that a good, strong agenda for the people of Ontario has to be a balanced and comprehensive agenda that recognizes that growing our economy alongside with inclusion is how we build the beautiful communities that we can all feel proud of.

Moving to some tactical things. I will just say, apologies in advance if some of this is just self-evident, but it is the foundation of the playbook. Here are some of the things that we can’t take for granted and that we absolutely must do in a climate where there are three elections back to back to back.

The very first one, of course, is to engage new MPPs in our backyard and local candidates in the upcoming municipal elections. The framing on those is important. You have to make a decision in terms of how you go into some of these meetings. But I think especially provincially there’s a part of the conversation that is about our briefing note and the issues and the policy.

But I think that there’s a conversation which is even more important, which is that with a government that wants to really deliver for everyday people, I think part of our job is to offer to both government and the opposition that our sector and our agencies and our organizations are connected to people on the ground, and are a very important sounding board and bellwether for the decisions the government will be making on line-by-line reviews and on value-for-money audits. The decisions that they [the government] make should be part of a dialogue about what does it mean to make a decision about some of the trade-offs that this government will inevitably have to make, and what is the impact that that will have on our communities?

I think I would say that even more important than putting our policy ideas forward, that right now the most important value that we can put on the table is that dialogue with community, is that sounding board for government as it makes some very important and crucial decisions, and just offering that there are unintended consequences any time you go through a fiscal discipline exercise. Let’s just make sure that there are checks on that, that start with real people.

John and I were joking earlier that INFO-GO is a lot thinner than what it’s going to be right now. INFO-GO, for those of you who know but especially for those of you who don’t know, is a really comprehensive and accurate directory that gives you a pretty good look at all parts of government, who’s who, both on the civil service as well as the political side.

Up on the screen you’ll see a few deputy ministers. I just typed in “deputy minister,” and a whole bunch of them show up. They’re all very hard at work right now. They’re all getting into tune with the new government, beginning to make their lists around the work that’s coming, around line-by-line reviews. Sometimes we can sort of forget that the civil service is a really important part of government and that they’re in transition too and that it will be very important for them to also be in the mode where they are providing advice to government that is based on a whole number of data points, including what is the potential impact on people.

I was involved with a number of colleagues in an exercise with the city of Toronto bureaucracy when city of Toronto bureaucrats were looking at efficiencies in government. Before putting their advice forward to decision makers at City Hall, they convened leaders from the sector, frontline agencies, and through a very tight process of confidentiality, of course, got some advice that I think was really invaluable in giving them a 360 on the trade-offs on what all of these various measures would mean. I think that that’s a comprehensive way to design policy, especially for a government that is going to be new at designing policy. I think that’s an idea that we should put forward. Next slide.

Change. I will speak for myself. Once you work with a government that’s been in power for 15 years, it can become — given that there are only 24 hours in the day and seven days a week — it can become easy to forget about engaging the opposition and treating them with respect in terms of the policy development process.

With a new government provincially, and federally going into an election, recognizing that our city halls and regional halls are going to have a whole number of voices within them, I think that we really need to take our work to the next level and be nonpartisan, engaging all sides of the house in terms of the conversations that we want to engage in. I think the opposition will be open to the kinds of conversations that we want to have, and that’s just something that needs to be not a nice-to-have but a must-have for some of our work.

Don’t take a free ride. This simply means that in order for us to be heard in the next period we’re really going to have to be strong in terms of our representation. We’re going to have to make sure that when our associations and our representative bodies go forward that when people look over their shoulder there are numerous voices and numerous people who are engaged and who are ready to back them up. Sometimes there’s a lot going on in our sector. We’re under pressure all the time to do all kinds of different things. Sometimes, again, we don’t roll up our sleeves for our associations and we don’t roll up our sleeves for our umbrella organizations. I think it’s really important we do that.

I think this is also a moment where our boards and donors really need to be engaged in this conversation. They need to understand what’s at stake and what the line of sight might be in some of the conversations moving forward. Engaging them is very important. Social media has never been more important in terms of government seeing we’re having a bellwether on how people are feeling. Start now in upping your social media relevance. Next slide.

We’re supposed to talk about collaboration, and I will end on this. Just to say that collaboration with unusual suspects is not something new. We’ve been working on community benefits very hard over the last four years. Community benefits has been all about recognizing that the construction industry is going to have a lot of things to build but at the same time that it has an aging workforce, and that there are many, many people who are underemployed and unemployed in communities that haven’t traditionally been engaged in the construction industry.

Connecting those dots is not charity work. It’s actually work that’s really important for our economy. It’s really important for our shared prosperity, and it has a wonderful spinoff effect of providing opportunity and fighting poverty.

The same thing happens with social enterprise in terms of creating good pipelines, for example for the hospitality industry. There are numerous examples of that. I simply put our prime minister and others up there to illustrate the fact that we worked very hard at United Way on the National Housing Strategy over the past two years. The whole thing that made the National Housing Collaborative work was that it was really a coming together of not-for-profits, of private sector providers, of foundations, of policy thinkers from every sector finding shared value in what is one of the two most serious policy challenges that the people we work with are facing along with the rise of precarious employment. This is not new.

In terms of where do we meet some of the unusual suspects and make some of the connections, I go to a lot of circuit breakfasts and lunches at the Board of Trade and Chamber of Commerce and other places. I don’t see a lot of us there.

And, yes, cost is a barrier. Paying $100 for that ticket is hard to justify, and taking time out of your busy schedule to go and have a lunch, and just the anxiety of being in a room that’s a little bit of a meat market, all of those things are real. But we have to get over it. That’s part of the reason why we need to engage our boards, because they need to give us the permission to do that work so that we can meet new people.

I’ve already plugged the Public Affairs Association that John runs. You don’t necessarily have to take out a membership right away, although Harvey would really like it if you did. But, you can show up to events, one-time events. I invite you to check out the Public Affairs Association of Canada.

Just to give you an example of the kind of work that they do — within a week of the election you had the three campaign managers up on stage in Chatham House Rules having the most fascinating, insightful conversation that you’re not going to be able to replay and that you’re not going to read about on Twitter. It’s really, really important stuff. Again, it’s stuff that we’re going to have to prioritize. Next slide.

In meeting new people, it’s important that we don’t go into it in terms of recruiting people to our cause. Yes, we have to be transparent about our vision, but, again, we have to be able to recognize that our work, as amazing as it is, can only get better. Being open to learning and changing and figuring out how we can co-create some value together with some people we don’t normally work with is really important.

Asking for help and advice is something that people respond to. John responds to it whenever I ask. I think that our sector is important. People recognize that, and they want to roll up their sleeves and help. We’ve got to do a whole lot more of that, and we have to celebrate and engage these new nexus of collaboration.

This is really my last slide. Times like this are the kinds of times when it’s easy for people to go back into their corners — to fight for your issue, to put all of your resources in terms of making sure that your stuff is okay. I really challenge us to make sure that we’re learning together. This playbook about how to work in this new reality is something that we’re going to have to learn how to do together, and we can learn so much more by being together than by being apart.

We need to act together and, again, get behind our associations. Give them the mandate that they need to really represent us strongly. When they ask you to go and knock on an MPP’s door in your community, this is not just something that’s nice to do. If enough of us do these kinds of things, they do come back into the conversation in caucus. Taking the time to do that is really important.

Finally, stay together. These are going to be interesting times. The reality is that in our sector we live alongside the hospital sector, we live alongside post-secondary institutions and a whole bunch of other sectors, and they’re all going to be doing the exact same things that the not-for-profit sector is going to be doing. In the context of all of those sectors, we have big work for us.

But from a power perspective, let’s face it, we’re the little guys. How is it that we ensure that we don’t remain and are not seen as the little guys, but we are really seen for all the power that we hold and all the potential that we can bring for this province. With that, I am going to pass it to Tina and John.

Tina Edan:

Thank you, Pedro. Some really, really great points there. You’re talking about this moment as being an opportunity, which is great. An opportunity for us as a sector to be introspective, to really think about the work that we do, and to be a potential sounding board for this government.

I also appreciate how, underlying what you said, the importance of relationships to all of this work is really critical, because I think to advance any kind of public policy we rely on relationships with those who are in our corner, for people we’ve never worked with before. I think for a lot of people in the non-profit sector, we’re going to be stepping into meetings with people whom we’ve never worked with.

You talked about this very briefly, but I’m wondering if you can elaborate a little bit around the notion of building trust. This is something that takes time to build, as with any relationship. How do we start the conversation with people we don’t know and build that trust, so we’re building relationships that are sustainable rather than transactional?

John Capobianco:

I was going to say, Tina, thank you for that question. But also, I wanted to thank you and Maytree for the opportunity, and also, Pedro, what a great presentation. I think everything you said is absolutely bang-on.

I think, from my perspective, and you might want to jump in on this, as well, Pedro. But with every new government, even though there are a number of MPPs who are returning to Queen’s Park, there’s a whole slew of new ones that are now there in the government side. There’s also in the opposition side, as well, but I’m speaking mostly from the government’s perspective.

A lot of them — and I was a candidate back in the day as well — a lot of them go with a certain sense of wanting to do well and represent their community, represent the province, represent their interests. I would say, take advantage of that early on. A lot of these new MPPs who are in government or are in opposition want to learn, want to be able to have a sense of doing something.

Organizations, not-for-profit or for-profit one, if you set up meetings with these individuals, you’ll get a lot more receptivity because they want to get to know them. They want to be able to learn what their issues are. They want to learn themselves about what’s happening.

It gets harder and harder as the years go on and the terms go on because obviously other things are jumping in and other distractions start happening. But early on I would say, in fact I was advising clients that they should go and actually meet with some of the candidates that they saw that were in those races that might switch and might turn over in some cases.

A lot of them were accepting meetings early on, even before they were elected. The organizations that were able to get to those people first and foremost I thought scored well because obviously that person that got elected then had a good sense of who that organization was because they met with them before they were elected. There’s that relationship that was building then.

But I would say go now, go early, and meet with folks. Meet with your local representative, first and foremost, which is probably the easiest, and then with the minister and staff that are responsible for your respective sector or respective area. I don’t know, Pedro, if you have anything to add to that.

Pedro Barata:

I’d just say that the first conversation perhaps shouldn’t be a lobby conversation. The first conversation should actually be an invitation to come down and see an agency or a program in action and meet some real people on the ground.

This was actually part of the strategy that the not-for-profit sector adopted in the GTA during the provincial election through the Ontario For All campaign, where we outreached in local ridings to invite all the candidates to come in to agencies and just see the programs in action, meet the people who use the programs, meet the staff, experience that, and develop a story in your own head about how important it is.

I think the first conversation is not necessarily about this amazing policy idea that we really want you to implement. It’s more just an invitation for dialogue that could lead to other things.

Tina Edan:                          

John, I’m going to ask you to take us inside the hallways of Queen’s Park now. We know who’s in the Cabinet. We’re waiting to hear about the government’s priorities today in the throne speech. What are the conversations around stakeholder engagement right now? Are they having them? What should our sector be listening for?

John Capobianco:           

I think today this webinar is actually perfectly timed, because in a couple of hours we’re going to hear the throne speech and we’ll hear the government for the first time actually lay out a bit of a roadmap as to what they want to be able to do by way of governing over the course of the next year or two, and for the duration of their term.

I think what you’re going to see is a government that is focused on change. A government focused on wanting to change what they see and feel are policies and initiatives that might not have been, in their eyes, done properly. Or they want to switch from the perspective of more spending to a revenue perspective. The premier’s always said that the province doesn’t have a spending problem; it’s got a revenue problem. I think there’s an opportunity there to be able to get a better sense of how best to get money in and how best to spend money.

I think what you’re going to see is a government that’s going to be focused on maintaining the five priorities that they campaigned on. Creating jobs, protecting jobs, first and foremost. Putting money back in the taxpayers’ pockets. The hydro — and you saw over the course of the last 24 hours this government move very swiftly on the hydro issue — and that was something that the premier, when he was a candidate for leadership of the party, mentioned and wanted to focus on.

When he won that leadership, he ran in an election that was focused on not only the hydro issue and cleaning that whole thing up with respect to the executives and the pay and all that, but also dealing with hydro rates specifically. Again, that speaks to putting taxpayer dollars back to taxpayers. Hydro was an issue.

Hallway health, getting rid of hallway healthcare and making sure that the healthcare system is back up to snuff and getting into what they feel is a world-class healthcare system. That’s something that they’re going to focus on. I think lastly accountability and transparency are the five.

I would suspect that this throne speech is going to be focused on that. It’s going to be focused on the people. Pedro mentioned that in his presentation.

That’s not just a throwaway line or a gimmicky line. That’s something that the premier has believed, his family and what have you have always talked about — retail politics, about going to the door and getting the voter, whoever that person may be, their respect and the attention that they deserve. He’s had that throughout his political career and he’s made it a centrepiece for his election, which obviously got him elected.

That’s something that is going to be a theme throughout the throne speech —people and how to give back and how to empower them more. Which I think is an opportunity for the not-for-profits, to be honest. I think there’s a huge opportunity from that perspective.

I was looking at some of the documents as I was doing research for the webinar. I know the questions that you were asking the parties back when the election was happening. As far as some of the key platforms, the PC Party didn’t have a lot of responses or a lot of information on those specific areas. That’s in some ways good and in some ways bad.

Bad in the sense that they didn’t focus on the not-for-profit sector during the election, albeit a very short election campaign. But it’s also an opportunity to be able to say, “Okay, well there’s a blank slate potentially. There’s an opportunity for us to go into this new government and talk to the new ministers and talk to the new MPPs about what we do and what we stand for and the value that we bring to society as a whole,” given the fact that you have over 55,000 or so organizations that employ a million people part-time, full-time.

That is a significant part of the population that I think has a powerful voice, and if presented well and presented in a certain manner to this new government, can have some influence.

Tina Edan:

With that in mind, the non-profit sector has worked with this previous government for the last 15 years. What do we as a sector need to unlearn and relearn as we step into working with the new government?

John Capobianco:           

I would say the communications. The way you approach the previous government versus this new government is going to be pivotal. I think talking about the value and the benefits that you have, and don’t take it for granted that everybody understands and knows that.

I think there’s always been in some circles a misperceived or misinterpreted perception of not-for-profits. It doesn’t matter what sector you’re in, because the value of not-for-profits and the work that everyone does is tremendous. But I think there’s always misconceived notions out there.

I think you need to be able to, at least first, find out from this new government what their perception is of not-for-profits, what they view the not-for-profit industry as, and do they have specific sectors within the industry that they favor more than others, if there’s something that actually fits into more of their agenda than they would.

I think the days of going cap-in-hand to government saying, “Hey, look. We’re a not-for-profit. We need some funding,” I think are not there, I would say respectfully, because I think this government, as Pedro had mentioned, was elected on a fiscal prudence, on trying to clean up the fiscal mess.

I think a lot of the things that they’ve done since they’ve been elected, since the swearing in, and until today, the throne speech, which we’ll see more of from an official perspective, has been to talk about auditing the books, finding out exactly what situation the province is in by way of finances. Freezing the bureaucracy to say, “Look. We don’t know what we’re spending on right this moment. I don’t know what commitments have been made. But let’s freeze everything until we have a better sense of where the money is coming from or where it’s going, and then we could re-evaluate some stuff.” The cap and trade, all these moves were all in the spirit of trying to contain the costs with this new government until they have a better handle of what’s going on.

I think for a not-for-profit organization, they need to be able to be sensitive to that mentality and go to government understanding what their priorities are and trying to fit your asks within their priority. That might not have been the case over the last 15 years with the Liberals. They might have had a different philosophy. In fact, having done a lot of work with organizations that lobbied or advocated with the previous government, they had a whole different philosophy when it came to those kind of asks.

But this government starts off in a very, very tough position because they need to know exactly where they stand financially and they need to be able to know that there are certain things that have to be maintained by way of spending, and there’s certain things that they feel that might not be a priority to them or a priority to the people that elected them, and they might shelve those and put those aside. Knowing where you fit in that category is going to be important for the next four years.

Tina Edan:                          

Are there any stereotypes of the non-profit sector that you know of that this government holds that you can share?

John Capobianco:           

No. You know what? I don’t know if there’s any stereotypes necessarily.

As Pedro mentioned, my firm and I have done work with not-for-profits and I’ve done a lot of advocating on behalf of not-for-profits, and giving them advice and counsel on how to deal with the federal government, how to deal with municipal and provincial governments over the course of the last number of years.

My advice has always been, don’t assume that the government you’re dealing with, no matter what level it is and no matter who it is, has a true understanding of the work that you guys do and the work that you provide. I think there’s a general sense that not-for-profits are organizations that obviously need funding that try to do good for society in various sectors in various opportunities in various ways. But don’t assume that that’s what everybody understands it to be.

I think the first thing is, get a good sense of what this government feels or what the premier or the ministers involved understand of it. But, as Pedro said, don’t go in there lobbying them. Go in there for the first little bit understanding them and having you make sure that you educate them on what you do, because that in itself builds the foundation of a relationship that might actually work.

I would start off by, if there’s local members of provincial parliament that you have, set up a meeting with them. Have them be an advocate for you, because when they sit around a Cabinet table or more a caucus setting, having five or six or seven or eight MPPs get up and say, “Hey, look. I spoke with a handful of not-for-profit organizations in my riding. Let me tell you the good work they’re doing. They’re employing this many people. They’re actually helping thousands of people get out of tough situations or understand other things in a better way.”

Don’t assume that they know what you guys do. Also, on the question of stereotypes, I’m not sure there’s any specific stereotypes that they may have. But I would just make sure that you understand what they think of you, first and foremost.

Tina Edan:                          

A question for both of you. We’ve recently seen the beginning of a new federal-provincial dynamic, particularly around the issue of asylum-seekers. This is an issue that’s very close to our sector. How should non-profits address issues where we’re seeing the federal government move in one direction and the province move in the other? What does this mean for our relationship with the government? How should we be talking about those issues?

John Capobianco:           

I’ll take a first stab at it, Pedro. Then you might want to correct me as you wish. That’s one of those issues, of course, that’s come up early. Cap and trade’s another one. The feds have a very set agenda with respect to not only asylum-seekers but also on the cap and trade where the province has its own battle.

Of course, the prime minister has a mandate that he rightfully got a number of years ago on those issues that he’s going to put forward. From a national perspective, he’s got a vision and a view of how he thinks it’s going to work from a national perspective.

But then again, you’ve got now a premier who just got elected with a very significant mandate for change, and it was very specific on five key points as I mentioned earlier. One of them was that they’re going to contain some costs and make sure that the fiscal framework that they’re living within is something that they can abide by for the next four or five years.

When this issue came up, when the prime minister and the premier had their meeting, it was something that the premier was already being briefed on. It was something that the mayor of Toronto, John Tory, had mentioned even weeks before the provincial election, where he was basically saying that Toronto has reached their capacity with respect to those who have come to Toronto to seek asylum and that he needs some more funding in order to be able to expand the housing and other services that come along with that.

I think when the premier got elected and he got briefed on those issues, he found as well that there was that level of, “Okay, we want to be able to respect and work with those that are already in here. But if you’re talking about more people coming in, there’s a capacity issue that we have that we just can’t financially service. We’re going to need the federal government to come in.”

I think that’s where the problem is. It’s a tough one, because to your question, Tina, with respect to how do you deal with this, I think you have to be able to go to the province and understand what their predicament is, but also understand and go to the prime minister at the federal level and say, “Is the funding right? Are you getting the funding models straight? Is the money being allocated to the various cities where a lot of the seekers are settling? Is it proportionately right from the perspective of making sure that there are services and there are proper housing?”

Because as far as I know they’re at capacity now, and there’s more to come. I think that’s where the issue is. It’s not a lack of compassion as it is more a sense of reality to say, “Hey. We’ve got a problem now that we need to fix and resolve, and we need you government to be a bit more sensitive to it.” I think that’s where the tussle is. I don’t know, Pedro, if that’s what you see.

Pedro Barata:

A friend of mine once told me that, when the elephant starts stomping, get out of the way. I think that there’s some wisdom to that, but not entirely. But there is a reality to this issue which is about just the lack of affordable housing in our region. Until we get to the bottom of that issue, stuff like this is going to continue to emerge and to present challenges, including framing challenges.

Without avoiding the question, I’d say that one of the things that we as the not-for-profit sector really need to focus on is that there is money on the table from the federal government and an existing agreement with the provincial government on a National Housing Strategy that is comprehensive, that has 10 years of funding behind it, and that is going, supposed to go, to a whole variety of approaches.

We have to make good on that. We have to make sure that we get to the root causes of that solution and keep reminding people that what’s happening here is not necessarily about the flow of refugees or asylum-seekers. What’s happening here is that we have a serious fundamental problem when it comes to access to affordable housing that we need to get to sooner rather than later.

I say that — it’s obvious. But I also say that because all of us have many priorities which lead to a laundry list of priorities. It’s at moments like this when we need to come together, act together, and stay together, and make sure that those issues, which are at the heart of so much of the need of so many of our different not-for-profits, stay front and centre in the conversation.

But I will also say that, speaking about umbrella organizations, it’s at times like this that organizations that represent the settlement sector, like OCASI, need to be really strong and where they need to make sure that, when people look over their shoulder, there are lots of people there.

We are, United Way and Maytree as well, longtime supporters of the work of OCASI because it is so important. It’s important that we have each other’s backs in times like this and that we remind each other of what’s important in terms of framing some of these issues.

Tina Edan:                          

We have a number of questions coming in from the audience. The first one is, there’s some concern that the province will see non-profits as a download opportunity. How does this sector engage and respond to this?

John Capobianco:

I think that’s a fair comment and a fair assessment. I think that I would say that learn or get to know what this government’s going to do and be a bit more proactive as far as building the relationship with this government to get a sense of where they want to go with this. I don’t think it’s going to come to that at all, but I think it’s going to be an opportunity for this government to be able to engage with not-for-profits in a way that speaks to some sort of a partnership.

I think if there’s opportunities where you can partner with the government in a way that allows for, from a funding perspective or from any sort of partnership arrangement that makes sense, they will be very open and likely to have that kind of conversation, first and foremost. It’s something that would be consistent with the work that the not-for-profits have always done. There’s always been opportunities to partner with governments at all levels on various things.

I think, seek out opportunities where that might be the case. Find out from the throne speech today what the priorities are, what they’re going to focus on more specifically. Even though the throne speech is always broad policy announcements that show more directional areas, there are opportunities within a throne speech, as with any other announcements, where organizations can read into those opportunities and say, “Okay. There’s an opportunity there. How do I match what I want ultimately with that?” If there’s a partnership opportunity that doesn’t involve necessarily a handout but a hand up, I think those are ones that I would capitalize on.

Tina Edan:                          

Another question from the audience. With the new provincial government, how important will it be to demonstrate that your policy asks have a direct benefit to the government finances?

John Capobianco:           

One hundred per cent. I think that is probably the number one thing. Whoever asked that question is absolutely bang-on and on point. The fiscal prudence of this government is going to be first and foremost. Anything that you can do that shows respect, that shows some level of understanding of that is going to go very well and you’ll have a receptive audience no matter who the minister is or whoever the elected official is.

Tina Edan:                          

A question for both of you. What if an organization’s ask or issue doesn’t align or resonate at all with the minister or government?

John Capobianco:           

I would say, and I’ve advised organizations and clients, if it doesn’t align, work with the opposition. Work with other groups. Try to find other stakeholders that might be champions or supporters of your cause that might be able to then have some level of receptivity with the government as well. There’s opportunities.

If you yourself can’t get in there, or if you get in there and get a roadblock and there’s a negative, find out why it’s a negative. Is it because of a financial situation? Is it because it just doesn’t align with their policies and principles?

If you can’t, then regroup and change your perspective because it just changes the fundamentals of what you as an organization believe in or stand for, then try to broaden it out to other organizations that might have some receptivity with the government. Be a partner with them to see if you can somehow wedge in a way that might see a sliver of acceptability with the new government, with what their priorities are, or what their issues are.

Pedro Barata:

Yes. And I think in a situation like that, if you can afford not to freak out about the immediacy of the situation, I think that this is actually a very common place that we find ourselves quite often.

Two years ago, the idea of a portable housing benefit in Canada was just crazy time. It was not on the government’s agenda. Many people didn’t understand it. There was some opposition to it.

You have to be patient in terms of getting issues onto the policy dance floor and you have to be strategic and have a strategy around how you’re going to do that, which includes all of the elements that will give you the best chance to succeed in terms of changing somebody’s mind, from the engagement, the constituency, the validators, the good policy design, good relationships with government, of course media and social media.

Campaigns are things that don’t necessarily have to happen in knee-jerk reaction. If you can afford to actually think about, maybe this is not a priority right now, but maybe this is a one-year or a two-year campaign, and how is it that we just develop a plan against that. Sometimes many nos can turn into a yes after much hard work.

Tina Edan:                          

Another question from the audience. Which stakeholders should non-profits be looking to collaborate with to get the attention of the new provincial government, and would that answer be different municipally?

Pedro Barata:                   

I think that there’s tremendous shared value in this economy in working with employers. I think that the reality is there are so many themes to it.

We’re finding through United Way’s Career Navigator work, for example, that there are industries that we know are going to be industries that will continue to grow — you think about IT, you think about hospitality, you think about construction — and that the resumes that employers get stack up but they’re not necessarily getting the right candidates. This is a subjective point, but I don’t think we’ve done the best job in the world in terms of doing good workforce development, just in terms of outcomes that work for people and work for employers.

Part of the reason that we have not done a great job is that we have not taken the time to actually sit down with employers and to have a deep, long-term, serious conversation about shared value and how it is that we’re going to be working together differently.

There are millions of dollars anyway in the field of workforce development. How is it that we can make sure that there’s a better line of sight to the needs of employers? How is it that we engage post-secondary education institutions in terms of making sure that the kinds of qualifications, training certificates, modules that need to be available to meet the needs of employers and to ensure that our clients can be strong when it comes to that job interview —how is it that we engage them in that conversation in a different way?        

We’ve been talking about these sort of ships in the night conversations around employers looking for qualified workers and workers not finding the jobs that they need. We need to be much more assertive in getting in the middle of that. That’s just one example about how we can find shared value with the private sector.

John Capobianco:           

I wouldn’t add anything. I think that’s exactly right.

The part of the question regarding municipally or provincially, which ones — I think that some stakeholders could easily be transferable to both. I think some others are much more aligned on the municipal side than the provincial side, so obviously be alert to which stakeholders have some level of connection with the municipal or the provincial, depending on what the issue might be.

But I think looking to collaborate with stakeholders is always a good thing. I think there’s always strength in numbers. There’s always strength in sense of what the purpose is. You might be able to get an elected official, a minister who might be much more aligned with a certain stakeholder that might benefit you in some way if you hook up with the right stakeholder. Always be mindful and always be on the lookout for that kind of partnership.

Tina Edan:                          

Another question from the audience. Not all voices are equally represented by our sector. For instance, the developmental service sector is in crisis, but we often don’t hear about this. How have you made sure that the experiences of those communities who don’t use standard services are included in your work?

Pedro Barata:                   

I think that real people and not service providers are going to be really important in terms of who gets paid attention to and who doesn’t. Again, to our ongoing conversation, I think that this government has a mandate to actually get to the heart of why it is that so many people are not getting ahead. I think the frustration is real.

In the context, you read the newspaper, you listen to the radio, and the economy’s growing, and yet there are more and more people that just continue to struggle to make ends meet because they can’t find the right job or their rent is getting less and less affordable. Those voices have to be the voices that really come to the forefront in terms of convincing politicians that their issue and their particular struggles are the things that need to be addressed.

For any group that has a constituency of parents, of real people, it’s those people that need to be out front. How is it that you tell those stories? Through traditional media, through social media, in terms of who you bring to meetings. Who does most of the talking in those meetings? How it is that you bring local representatives down to your agency and make sure that the vast majority of the oxygen in the room is actually the real people who are using your services. I think that all of those actually play to your sector’s strengths, and how is it that we do more of that?

Tina Edan:                          

We just have a few moments left. I’m going to ask one last question from the audience, because the theme is echoed in a few of the other questions. How do we address a conflict of values and benefits when it already appears there’s a disconnect? For instance, cuts to the Indigenous curriculum and work on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

John Capobianco:           

A great question. How do we address the conflict of values? I think, and it’s going to sound repetitive, but I think it’s an educational issue in educating this new government on some of these issues. I think, understanding the fact that the Conservative Party went through this change from January, where the leader that they had resigned, and then they went through this quick leadership process, and then, from that, went into an election.

The timeframe of ramping up for specifically for Doug Ford, the premier, was a short period of time. Doug and his campaign and certainly the party had so many things that they had to focus on getting into an election that there’s other issues that weren’t mentioned but it doesn’t mean that they’re not being attentive to or being told to or being briefed on as we speak.

I think there’s an opportunity to be able to go in there and get a sense of where those conflicts are and also understanding why. They might not be talking about Indigenous curriculum and some of these issues. It doesn’t mean that they’re not going to be focusing on them down the road. It means that they’ve got other things that they need to focus on first and foremost.

When you took away the cap and trade, as he did, with that came a whole bunch of other spinoff things like we saw with the education and the school funding. It doesn’t mean that they’re not going to go fix schools. It just meant that the funding that was under that program that was earmarked for that is no longer going to be the case, but they’re going to have to obviously find that funding in other buckets.

There’s opportunities to be able to go and find out where the conflicts are, and how severe those conflicts are potentially. But also is there an opportunity to be able to pivot or at least maybe raise the awareness to the respective minister in charge on these issues that might benefit you in the long run?

A tough question, for sure. But it’s also an opportunity to be able to go in and really just get to know what they stand for and what they believe in. That’s an opportunity to meet with these officials, either at Queen’s Park or at various receptions —because a lot of them are going to be out there — and build those relationships now. Try to get some time with them at various events that Pedro was mentioning. But building that is going to be of critical importance to get to know what they stand for and where their values are.

Pedro Barata:                   

Just to add to that, in every public opinion poll around every election, the reality is that we’re always coming in from behind. We’re never at the top of mind for most voters. We always have to work harder than everybody else to eventually make it onto the policy dance floor.

Just as a reminder to all of us, it took the McGuinty government four years to introduce a poverty reduction strategy. It took them four years to bring in Ontario Child Benefit, because all of the issues around the economy and healthcare and education and all of those issues will always be top of mind for any government because that’s what they hear and that’s what they see in public opinion polls.

Where we are right now is where we normally are in terms of any reset, which is we’re always starting at least a few feet behind everybody else. We have to work our buns off in order to make our case. We have to get our communities involved. And we have to be confident and hopeful that, through our hard work and just the reality of the good work that we do, that eventually we will break through on some of those bigger issues that touch on more Ontarians or Torontonians or Canadians.

There’s no substitute for just being very sober and clear about where we sit on the power grid, and just keep working really, really hard knowing that it’s going to take time and it’s going to be hard, but that we can do it.

Tina Edan:                          

On that optimistic note, I’d like to say thank you both very, very much. This was a very timely conversation and we really appreciate you being so generous with your time and expertise.

Thank you, also, to my colleagues at Maytree and to our partners, the ONN, and a very big thanks to those of you who joined us today. Your questions were great and informed our conversation. This is our final webinar in the series, and you can access the content on the ONN website. Thank you.

John Capobianco:

Thank you.

Pedro Barata:                   

Thank you.




In this webinar recording, learn how non-profit leaders and organizations can successfully build relationships and alliances that can help move your public policy goals forward.