In November 2020, an announcement about a new role for a British Columbia MLA was anything but routine, at least for the charitable sector in that province: Niki Sharma was to become Parliamentary Secretary for Community Development and Non-Profits. In other words, the charitable sector in BC now had a “home in government”. She became part of a very small group of elected officials in Canada whose responsibilities encompass “acting as the advocate and key point of contact within government” for the nonprofit sector.
In our recent CharityVillage Connects podcast episode, we had the pleasure of interviewing Parliamentary Secretary Sharma to learn more about her work and how a Home in Government, something many sector leaders have spent years advocating for, actually looks in practice.
The origins of Ms. Sharma’s appointment may be instructive for nonprofits in other provinces who are looking for a home in government, so we asked her how this new Parliamentary Secretary position came about.
Parliamentary Secretary Sharma: First of all, it started with the many years of advocacy from BC’s nonprofits, along with others across Canada to say that we need a home in government. I think it was really highlighted through COVID. The COVID impacts that the nonprofit sector was facing were very different than other sectors. They were asking the BC government at that time, where’s our home? Where do we go to talk about how COVID is impacting us and what our needs are? And so that really pointed out to the premier that we needed to have something that addressed that. And hence my role came about from that. So this was one of those, I think, positive outcomes of COVID, that the nonprofit sector has somebody that’s there to advocate for their needs.
With many years of advocacy from BC’s charitable sector helping to create Parliamentary Secretary Sharma’s role in the provincial legislature, we were curious to learn why the time had come for a parliamentary secretary dedicated to nonprofits.
Parliamentary Secretary Sharma: I talked about the impact that the sector has on the province. So I think that having a home in government helps elevate that, but, really, almost every policy that will come out of a provincial government or a government will either involve a nonprofit partner, impact a nonprofit, or be benefited from the work of a nonprofit, because government is very much aligned with the principles of a lot of what the nonprofits are doing in the community. What I was noticing, particularly under the COVID lens, is those impacts were blind to a lot of government policy, right? That they weren’t being seen because there was no voice to say internally, well, this is what is happening with the nonprofit sector, and this is why it’s important, and this is how we have to respond.
I can see why the sector’s been advocating for a long time for a home in government, because a lot of the issues that this nonprofit sector deals with are sticky issues, right within government, whether it’s to do with the administration of grants and the kind of overly bureaucratic responses that they have to deal with. So you need to have some kind of sustained lens inside to actually figure out how we piece through solving those issues in a more complete way. So there’s plenty of work to do, but if I wasn’t here, for example, there wouldn’t be a COVID Resiliency Recovery Fund that was for the nonprofit sector as a whole, because we heard and listened to the impacts on the sector. We wouldn’t be thinking about how we do grants differently and how multi-year funding is so important, and all those things that we heard in our engagements.
In its final report, the Senate Special Committee on the Charitable Sector recommends that the Minister of Innovation, Science and Technology create a “regular venue for the facets of the federal government to interact and collaborate with this diverse sector.” This “venue” would be supported by a secretariat for the charitable and non-profit sector. Will the federal government follow the lead of British Columbia and create such a role? We asked Niki Sharma for her views.
Parliamentary Secretary Sharma: I’m hopeful, I’m really hopeful. And what I’ve heard from the nonprofits in BC is exactly that, we need a voice and a home in government. And so that’s certainly something that I’ll be telling and sharing with my federal counterparts. I think it would be amazing to think about what could be accomplished for the sector if every level of government had the same lens that I’m able to when I advocate for the sector within government. I think not only would the sector be stronger, but also, Canada would be stronger. I always say that the people that I meet are the type of people that don’t look away from problems. They look right at them and they roll up their sleeves and they try to figure out, how do I solve this for my society, for the environment, for the wellbeing of my neighbour. And that’s a beautiful thing to invest in. Having, a home in government has really helped us put on that lens as a government. And I hope that every jurisdiction in Canada follows suit, I think it would be a great thing for the country.