Publications, opinions, and speeches


Starting fresh: Imagining a non-profit policy environment in 2017 and onward

Published on 13/02/2018

Issues such as rising income-inequality, the effects of climate change, the opioid crisis, and reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Canada are increasingly complex and interconnected. Their causes and solutions are linked to many other challenges, and sometimes not in obvious ways, which means that no individual organization, sub-sector, or government can really make a dent in the issue on its own.

While the issues we’re addressing have changed, our governing systems date back to the 1600s and have changed very little since then. Without updating our legal, regulatory, and policy regimes and creating a more responsive regulatory framework, non-profits face limitations on how they can function. In practice, this means an organization willing to address community needs through cross-sectoral or cross-disciplinary approaches or collaborations might not meet the legal definitions of charity that would facilitate its work. Or an organization might find its work hindered by the rigid guidelines of an outdated system.

Last spring, after an event with charity regulators in Ottawa, a group of us engaged in charity policy came together with an interest in broadening the conversation on legislative and regulatory reform in the sector. So often the conversations include the same experts and umbrella organizations already operating within the current regulations, and far removed from challenges on the ground. We wanted to learn from individuals experiencing firsthand the challenges posed by the current regulatory framework, particularly those working at the fringes of what is considered the charitable sector.

With the support of Susan Phillips at Carleton University’s Philanthropy and Nonprofit Leadership program, we designed an event to highlight some of these voices to coincide with Imagine Canada’s Charities Day on the Hill. The goal was to bring new and diverse perspectives from outside conventional charity circles, and to ultimately enrich the dialogue about the sector’s relationship with government.

Panelists included:

  • Monika Dutt, medical doctor and Executive Director of Upstream, a movement focused on tackling upstream solutions to health;
  • Emma Gilchrist, Editor-in-Chief of Desmog Canada, a non-profit online news magazine dedicated to making complex energy and environment news accessible to Canadians;
  • Yancy Craig, Senior Policy Advisor of the Assembly of First Nations and former Director of Strategy Development for National Association of Friendship Centres; and
  • Darcy Penner, Social Enterprise Policy Manager for the Canadian Community Economic Development Network Manitoba (CCEDNet)

The panel was moderated by Brittany Fritsch, Manager of Public Policy at Imagine Canada.

We asked our panelists: Does Canada’s current legal, regulatory, and policy regime sufficiently enable charities and non-profits to meet the challenges of the 21st century? And if not, what would need to change?

Over the hour-long panel, discussions connected experiences on the ground with the looming governance questions raised above. Overall, three themes emerged from this talk:

  1. There is a gap between ‘doing good’ and being charitable
    The panelists spoke about having to find workarounds to fund and support their efforts, which do not fit current definitions of charity. As Darcy Penner explained, for many social enterprises, choosing the appropriate legal structure means choosing the path of least resistance. Emma Gilchrist spoke about the fundamental role that nonpartisan civic journalism plays in a democracy; and yet there are limited options for outlets to operate as non-profits, let alone charities. Why does this matter? Part of that answer is about accessing charitable dollars, but part of it is also about recognizing that the work these groups do is for public benefit.
  1. Government and the non-profit sector need to work together differently
    As Yancy Craig noted, funding requirements and other agreements with local, provincial, or federal governments can at times be restrictive, limiting groups from meeting the needs of their communities; funding timeframes or the types of activity allowed can hinder a group’s efforts. Monika Dutt reminded the room this doesn’t mean community groups should replace the role of government, but that government can play an enabling role by providing funding, ensuring equitable decision-making processes, and seeking a diversity of voices.
  1. Change may be slow, but the solutions can’t be
    One of the final discussions was about the urgency of the issues we are facing and the comparatively slow pace of legislative change. While legislative change — like changing the Income Tax Act — can create a more enabling environment by providing a definition of charity that better reflects 21st century solutions, the panelists emphasized that we must find creative ways to continue the work at the same time as we push for change.

Watch the full video here:


Does Canada’s current legal, regulatory, and policy regime sufficiently enable charities and non-profits to meet the challenges of the 21st century? To address this issue, Imagine Canada and the Philanthropist organized a panel on regulatory reform in the charitable sector.


Non-profit sector