Political Activities by Charities Legal and Good For Society
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.