Political Activities by Charities Legal and Good For Society

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I’ve been watch­ing the com­ments sec­tions of news reports and columns run­ning on some of the larger media web­sites. And I notice a con­sis­tent piece of mis­in­for­ma­tion creep­ing in: that char­i­ties are not allowed to engage in polit­i­cal activ­i­ties. That’s sim­ply not true.

One con­trib­u­tor below Carol Goar’s excel­lent col­umn (and I say excel­lent not just because she quotes me and sends read­ers to my web­site and online the­sis, of course) of today (July 16), sug­gested that it was not the role of char­i­ties to be involved in “polit­i­cal activ­i­ties.” Those who do, sug­gested the con­trib­u­tor, “should not be sup­ported by tax­payer dol­lars via tax deduc­tions.” Fur­ther, sug­gested the writer, “there are plenty of orga­ni­za­tions out there play­ing fast and loose with our money.”

Whether or not this con­trib­u­tor is a party oper­a­tives post­ing in an effort to deflect crit­i­cism (all par­ties have their paid staff and over-enthusiastic vol­un­teers, of course), I think the point is wor­thy of direct atten­tion. Here goes:

  • Cur­rent reg­u­la­tions and inter­pre­ta­tions allow char­i­ties to par­tic­i­pate in “polit­i­cal activ­i­ties” as defined by Canada Rev­enue Agency up to a limit of 10 per­cent (20 per­cent for smaller char­i­ties) of the charity’s resources — staff and vol­un­teer time and budget;
  • This is because CRA has for some years now rec­og­nized that soci­ety ben­e­fits when charities—who are experts in their areas of work—participate in society’s con­ver­sa­tions but not as their pri­mary activity;
  • Char­i­ties are restricted to com­ment­ing on mat­ters that are in line with their offi­cially rec­og­nized “purpose”—relief of poverty, advance­ment of edu­ca­tion, advance­ment of reli­gion, or other pur­poses that the courts have upheld as an appro­pri­ate ben­e­fit to the community.

Char­i­ties are not, how­ever, allowed to par­tic­i­pate in “par­ti­san activ­i­ties” like call­ing for the ouster of the cur­rent gov­ern­ment, endors­ing spe­cific par­ties or can­di­dates and that sort of thing.

One way to think about it is this:

  • If a can­cer char­ity funds a study that finds that expo­sure to second-hand smoke is asso­ci­ated with increased rates of can­cer, it is “char­i­ta­ble activ­ity” if that char­ity holds a press con­fer­ence, announces that the find­ings sug­gest that the gov­ern­ment should out­law smok­ing in work­places. As a “char­i­ta­ble activ­ity,” the char­ity can pur­sue this approach to its heart’s content;
  • If that char­ity then sends emails to its mem­bers or tweets the gen­eral pub­lic and asks them to con­tact their MP to ask for leg­is­la­tion out­law­ing smok­ing in the work­place, they are par­tic­i­pat­ing in allow­able “polit­i­cal activ­i­ties” if the topic and com­mu­ni­ca­tion fits their “purpose;”
  • If that char­ity uses an intem­per­ate tone in crit­i­ciz­ing cur­rent gov­ern­ment pol­icy, or sug­gests peo­ple vote for another party in the next elec­tion in order to get leg­is­la­tion against work­place smok­ing, this is for­bid­den “par­ti­san activ­i­ties” and the char­ity is vul­ner­a­ble to a spank­ing by CRA or loss of its char­i­ta­ble sta­tus if there’s a his­tory of this.

I bet you can see the grey areas. Char­i­ties cer­tainly do and some are con­fused. So fac­ing a politi­cized audit­ing process, they are con­sult­ing lawyers, hold­ing sem­i­nars, care­fully mea­sur­ing their var­i­ous activ­i­ties to ensure they stay under 10 per­cent “polit­i­cal activ­i­ties,” and chang­ing the con­tent, tone fre­quency, and chan­nels of communication—all of which are a diver­sion of time and money and vigor away from the mis­sion that their mem­bers, and per­haps soci­ety in gen­eral, expects them to focus on.

And please note that the char­ity sec­tor umbrella group, Imag­ine Canada, found in a 2010 study that 37 per­cent of char­i­ties engage in “polit­i­cal activ­ity.” How do you think we got drunk-driving leg­is­la­tion, smok­ing reg­u­la­tions, and emis­sions reg­u­la­tions that reduced the acid rain destroy­ing our lakes? Though many char­i­ties dab­ble in polit­i­cal activ­i­ties, both char­ity lead­ers and indus­try experts I spoke to agreed that few come any­where near their 10 per­cent limit. The stepped-up audits, in short, are a solu­tion in search of a non-existent prob­lem; unless, that is, there’s another agenda at work on the part of elected officials.

Those grey areas I men­tioned above have been around a long time and have not been fully clar­i­fied by CRA, which puts orga­ni­za­tions under unac­cept­able stress. Per­haps senior man­darins and cab­i­net min­is­ters like it that way; I don’t know. And there’s a poten­tial loom­ing prob­lem: orga­ni­za­tions that have been going through audits, and some of which have repeat­edly passed audits in their his­tory, believe that the above def­i­n­i­tions of “polit­i­cal activ­i­ties” and “par­ti­san activ­i­ties” are being rein­ter­preted by audi­tors right now.

But here’s the nub: Some sug­gest that some of the audi­tors are inter­pret­ing any crit­i­cism of the poli­cies of the cur­rent gov­ern­ment is being seen as “polit­i­cal activ­ity.” Of course, that is absurd and against the spirit of cur­rent reg­u­la­tions and will no doubt end up in the courts if that’s where CRA is head­ing. That inter­pre­ta­tion would essen­tially move from the cur­rent “muf­fling” of char­ity voices that I found in my the­sis research to a full-fledged vir­tual “silenc­ing” of the voices of these experts. We need these experts to speak up in our national con­ver­sa­tions to ensure we make the best pos­si­ble pol­icy deci­sions for our country.

I guess we will soon see if their fears are cor­rect. Audit results are trick­ling out. Char­i­ties will undoubt­edly share their find­ings if we’re enter­ing such a period. But given that there doesn’t appear to be a deep-seated prob­lem here with regard to “polit­i­cal activ­i­ties,” why would the gov­ern­ment step-up audit­ing and accom­pany it with stri­dent anti-charity rhetoric? That will have to wait for another post.

Mean­while, 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 work as a com­mu­ni­ca­tions pro­fes­sional. I have earned a Web­ster Award of Dis­tinc­tion, among other awards, for my reporting.

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