Government Rhetoric Frames Charities as Criminals — and Worse


Up to 10 per­cent of the resources—money, peo­ple, time—of a Cana­dian char­i­ta­ble orga­ni­za­tion can be devoted to what reg­u­la­tions call “polit­i­cal activities.”

Repeated stud­ies show that the aver­age is far below this, and that many char­i­ties do not par­tic­i­pate in polit­i­cal activ­i­ties. But a 2010 sur­vey by Imag­ine Canada, the umbrella orga­ni­za­tion of char­i­ties, found that 37 per­cent of char­i­ties actu­ally par­tic­i­pated in some form of “polit­i­cal activ­ity,” com­pared to the one per­cent of orga­ni­za­tions that actu­ally declared in their tax returns that they had done so, as found in a 2012 study by Cana­dian Press.

The Imag­ine Canada study has cred­i­bil­ity because it asked char­i­ties to report their var­i­ous kinds of com­mu­ni­ca­tions, and then the researcher sorted through them to dis­cover which met the government’s def­i­n­i­tion of “polit­i­cal activities.”

That’s a mas­sive dis­crep­ancy. And prob­a­bly the result of con­fu­sion in the char­ity sec­tor about what kinds of com­mu­ni­ca­tions are con­sid­ered accept­able. That con­fu­sion may be exac­er­bated, at least in the pub­lic mind, by fed­eral cab­i­net min­is­ters as far back as 2012 fram­ing polit­i­cal activ­i­ties as some­thing unde­sir­able, and inap­pro­pri­ate for orga­ni­za­tions that can offer donors a receipt allow­ing a tax deduc­tion. The rhetoric ramp­ing up to the audits of “polit­i­cal activ­ity” spoke of crim­i­nal orga­ni­za­tions, ter­ror­ist orga­ni­za­tions, money laun­der­ing, and rad­i­cal ide­o­log­i­cal agendas.

The pub­lic, and by exten­sion char­ity lead­ers, can be excused for think­ing that “polit­i­cal activ­i­ties” occur when you rec­om­mend that cit­i­zens vote for a spe­cific party or can­di­date in an elec­tion, or inap­pro­pri­ately par­tic­i­pate in a polit­i­cal party’s event, or get really per­sonal in crit­i­ciz­ing a gov­ern­ing party or oppo­si­tion politi­cian. If that’s what was going on, who wouldn’t want char­i­ties audited, caught, and spanked?

But that’s not Canada Rev­enue Agency’s def­i­n­i­tion of “polit­i­cal activ­i­ties.” Under the reg­u­la­tions, an orga­ni­za­tion can seek to pres­sure the gov­ern­ment about an issue cen­tral to the charity’s offi­cial pur­pose (Canada’s four allow­able char­i­ta­ble pur­poses are alle­vi­at­ing poverty, advanc­ing edu­ca­tion or reli­gion, or other pur­posed ben­e­fi­cial to the com­mu­nity). Pres­sur­ing gov­ern­ment is fine so long as the char­i­ties do not get par­ti­san or exceed 10 per­cent of their resources. So, yeah, they can advo­cate for their point of view as experts in an area, and should pre­sum­ably be able to do so with­out harass­ment. And if the char­ity con­ducts a study, and then speaks of the rec­om­men­da­tions of the study, that’s not even con­sid­ered polit­i­cal activ­ity under the reg­u­la­tions, but rather “char­i­ta­ble activ­ity” and so they can do it with­out limit. Or at least these are what the char­ity “experts” I spoke to see as the dif­fer­ence between char­i­ta­ble, polit­i­cal, and par­ti­san activities.

Clear? Well, there are indeed grey areas and one of my research find­ings is that, despite mak­ing some progress on this front, CRA needs to fur­ther clar­ify these. Instead, some lead­ers say the CRA is inter­pret­ing more strictly. Whether the inter­pre­ta­tions are in flux will become clear as the audits now under­way come to fruition.

In any case, as a researcher the ques­tions that I find most inter­est­ing include why the gov­ern­ment rhetoric seemed cal­i­brated to cause con­fu­sion, to frame as crim­i­nal or un-Canadian some orga­ni­za­tions that were work­ing within the rules as they know them. Why were mil­lions of dol­lars sud­denly needed for audit­ing char­i­ties? What char­i­ties are being audited? What’s the affect on char­i­ties that advo­cate on pub­lic pol­icy issues? Most impor­tantly: what’s in it for the gov­ern­ment, why this, why now, and what does it tell us about the vital­ity of our democracy?

But more on that next posting.

Check out my Master’s the­sis.

I am a for­mer jour­nal­ist and media man­ager who recently com­pleted my Master’s the­sis for Royal Roads Uni­ver­sity and now works as a com­mu­ni­ca­tions pro­fes­sional. I have been awarded a Web­ster Award of Dis­tinc­tion, among other awards, for my reporting.

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