The Lawson Foundation is a founding member of the Funders Working Group on Early Childhood Development (FWG-ECD), a group of 8 Canadian foundations that regularly come together to talk about the importance of quality early childhood education (ECE) and to look at ways to collaborate. Recently, the working group made the decision to play a stronger collective role on the public policy front. After all, it’s hard to see how we will see meaningful change on the ECE front without trying to influence public policy.
A few months ago, the group came together as we often do, to discuss ECE and how we can work together to push the envelope. At this particular meeting two things helped energize us and create a different context for our discussions.
First, that same day, a group of Québec-based foundations had collectively published an open letter in the Le Devoir urging the Québec Government to be careful about the potential negative impact of recent budgetary decisions on social inequality in the province. This was a first for these foundations. Never in the past, had they come together to speak out with a single voice on a public policy issue. And that really inspired us.
Secondly, the increasing talk in the spring of a looming federal election helped us focus on the need to take advantage of this context to voice our concerns about a crucial public policy issue that matters so much to us as a group, namely, ECE.
So inspired and energized by the Québec-based foundations and seeing the current context as the right time to act, we rolled up our sleeves and got to working on drafting an open letter of our own. Getting 8 foundations to agree on messaging, wording and the tone of such a letter was a bit of a challenge, but we got there!
Two simple key messages were agreed upon:
- the importance of investing more in quality ECE and
- the importance of a strong federal role in partnership with the provinces.
Our letter was addressed to the leaders of the five federal parties. We also asked for meetings with the leaders or their advisors. Following that, we sent the letter to a number of papers across the country to make it public. Our intent was to share our two messages but also to remind Canadians that foundations have something to bring to public policy and that we are willing and able to get involved.
While we hoped for a higher take-up, the open letter was published in dailies in Edmonton, Fredericton and St-John’s. Many of the papers we sent the letter to indicated that they were not interested in publishing a letter signed by multiple authors. While that did not come to us as a big surprise, I still find it unfortunate as the collective authorship of the letter was actually part of our messaging.
However, we adapted and in a continued effort to get the word out more broadly Colette Murphy (Atkinson Foundation) and I signed a complementary op-ed (referring to the collective letter) that got published in the Toronto Star. And of course we shared the letters through our social media.
But we didn’t stop there. We also capitalized on another opportunity to circulate the piece, by ensuring it was in the hands of all the provincial Premiers who were meeting in Newfoundland under the auspices of the Council of the Federation. Through a high-level contact of ours, we found out that ECE was actually on their agenda. So the timing of our open letter was great!
Interestingly, while none of the federal leaders (except Elizabeth May) accepted our invitation to meet, a number of the Premiers (or at least their officials) have connected with us to set up meetings to discuss our letter and our ideas. So we are in the process of setting those up.
I should clarify that nobody on the Funders Working Group has any illusion that our collective letter will change the world or influence the federal election in any major way (although if it does, we will certainly rejoice!). Our intention at the get-go was much more modest. We basically set out to position ourselves as a credible group of foundations that have something to bring to public policy discussions around ECE and a group that wants and should be at the table to influence those conversations whatever the results of the election on October 19.
Foundations in Canada have an important contribution to bring given the many crucial public policy issues facing Canada. The time has come for us to be much more visible and active on this front. If we are truly going to change things, we can’t avoid engaging meaningfully in the world of public policy.