Government Relations Advice for Non-Profits

By Brad Zubyk

Do you work or volunteer for a great cause that has a project that would benefit from government funding or support to get it off the ground? Are you wondering how to go about getting attention from municipal, provincial and/or federal governments?

There are thousands of charities in Canada doing great work that are in the same boat, and expectations are high for limited government resources. In this sea of asks, here are six steps that will help your non-profit get noticed and, more importantly, get funded.

Step 1. Get your house in order and do your homework.

Before going to government with your hat in hand, get your house in order. Be sure you can articulate your niche and what community segment and/or needs you meet. You must also understand government priorities in your sector and ensure you have a credible organization with a solid mandate and good governance.

Step 2. Build connections.

Like most things, who you know can make all the difference. Audit your connections. Start with your board of directors, then move on to your staff, beneficiaries and even your membership list. You might be surprised at the extent of your network. Leveraging these connections is as easy as picking up the phone and asking for a meeting, or offering a tour of your facility or project—whatever it takes to build relationships and let influencers or decision-makers touch and feel the work you’re doing in their community.

Step 3. Align your ask with government priorities.

Once you’ve laid the groundwork and made some connections, you are ready to start to formulate an ask. Chances are, you’ll only get one kick at the can, so keep your request simple and realistic. Governments prefer to fund capital projects over operational expenses, so focus your ask on a bricks-and-mortar project or a program that requires start-up funding, and that preferably aligns with the government’s agenda or campaign promises. Above all, do not ask for the moon.

Step 4. Establish a narrative.

Once you’ve set your priority request, build a case for it. Government is made up of human beings who will be moved by the work you are doing if you can find a way to tell your story simply and convincingly. Tugging on heartstrings is a great opener, but will not close the deal. Back up your feel-good narrative with solid proof points and testimony from expert validators. This way, potential government funders will know you’re worthy, legitimate, credible and reliable. Having support from private funders or corporate sponsors wont hurt, either—like the rest of us, governments like to back a winner.

Step 5. Pay attention to timing.

In general, governments and bureaucracy move slowly and carefully. Don’t run to government in a panic. Instead, cultivate a culture of patience, bide your time and take into account election and budget cycles. Government is often most receptive to requests that benefit a newsworthy cause or one with the power to reverse negative PR.

Step 6. Consider the art of the possible.

Be creative and realistic.

Instead of outright funding, a tax credit or legislation change might be the best answer for your non-profit. And don’t forget the quid pro quo. Your ask will be much more attractive if government can visualize the upside for them, so make sure you let them know all the innovative and public ways you will showcase their support for your worthy cause. Most politicians can’t resist a great photo op.

Government is only one potential source of funding. Canada has numerous generous foundations, families, individuals and corporations. Many of the tips here will help your non-profit attract their attention, too.

Brad Zubyk is a government relations expert who has been at the forefront of strategic communications in Canada since 1993. He creates innovative, effective solutions for clients that achieve tangible results and help strengthen their reputations. Brad says one of his greatest pleasures in life is helping worthy non-profits achieve their funding goals.