Mike Harcourt Leads United Way’s Public Policy Bootcamp

The United Way’s new school aims to make the not-for-profit sector a policy powerhouse.

Former premier Mike Harcourt is passing on policy wisdom to a class of not-for-profiteers.

The United Way’s new school aims to make the not-for-profit sector a policy powerhouse.

Government in B.C., as described by a man who was once B.C.’s premier and Vancouver’s mayor, is full of well-intentioned but fearful people. Not a good situation for a province trying to address such difficult issues as homelessness and rising health-care costs. “We’ve gone way too far in reining in government,” says Mike Harcourt. “There’s a lack of risk-taking now in the province, because you’re going to get audited and zapped and humiliated. So everybody’s covering their ass and doing immense due diligence, way over the top.”

In early 2010, Harcourt got a call from friend and former colleague Brenda Eaton, chair of BC Housing. She introduced him to the United Way Policy Institute, a project that aims to put some punch back in B.C.’s policy circles by making the not-for-profit sector a force to be reckoned with. Harcourt was intrigued, and he’s now leading the initiative.

This month the institute will enroll about 25 leaders of social-service, health and other not-for-profit organizations in a sort of public-policy boot camp, mirroring similar programs in Ontario and Alberta. This cadre will log almost 100 hours of class time over six months starting in January 2011, acquiring the tools they need to influence decision-making in the halls of power, including lessons on rigorous research, presenting solutions to the right people, putting plans into action and then measuring the results.

The institute is needed, Harcourt says, because the not-for-profit sector in B.C., like government, is trapped in a form of paralysis. Organizations often feel powerless, he says. Leaders constantly confront problems such as low graduation rates for aboriginal youth and persistent child poverty, and naturally they have some ambitious ideas about what can be done. But, he muses, where do they start? With the right skills, he says, the not-for-profit sector can serve as a living laboratory for radical policy options that the bureaucracy doesn’t have the stomach for, turning the sector into an “an incubator for risky ideas.”

The Maytree Foundation in Ontario offered the first program of this kind in Canada five years ago, and one of its early graduates is Martha Mackinnon, executive director of Justice for Children and Youth, a legal aid organization in Toronto. Work in the not-for-profit universe can be very demanding, she says, especially as funders ask for more and more proof of accountability. “You don’t get enough time to do thinking, really, when you’re doing day-to-day work,” she says. 

What’s impressive about this in-depth, time-consuming training program, Mac­kinnon says, is that it’s a major investment that asks for virtually no short-term payback, and that’s rare in not-for-profit sector. 

That’s not to say there’s no payback eventually. The Ontario program called on its students to work on a real-world project, and Mackinnon chose to craft a policy proposal countering the Safe Schools Act brought in by the Mike Harris government in Ontario, which produced a dramatic increase in school expulsions through a set of “zero-tolerance” rules. Mackinnon’s proposal had to show that schools could be kept safe without kicking troubled kids out of the system. Several of her recommendations were eventually enacted, after the Liberals came to power in Ontario.

The United Way is perhaps best known for helping the needy rather than offering executive training. But according to Michael McKnight, the Lower Mainland branch’s president and CEO, the two jobs are closely linked. The role of social-service organizations is, after all, to change the world. Crisis intervention – feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless and so on – will always be part of that job, McKnight says, but it isn’t enough. “It’s not just about funding programs; we know that,” he says. “It hasn’t changed the Downtown Eastside despite the many, many millions of dollars we’ve put 
in there.”

Real solutions require social change, McKnight says, and that often involves public policy, an area where the not-for-profit sector could be doing much more. But it’s not easy. As provincial budgets have tightened, McKnight says, so have grants to social-service organizations. Meanwhile, demand for their services keeps increasing, which leaves many executives in the sector focused on survival. On top of that, a career path in the not-for-profit sector usually involves little formal training, he says, certainly not when it comes to something as complex as forming public policy. The institute is designed to empower these leaders to do more. 

“There are critical things that people want to see changed because they’re tired of, you know, homelessness being the top issue in the city,” McKnight says. “And if we don’t want to keep putting a Band-Aid on it – we want to change it – there’s no time better than the present.”