This is What “Chill” Looks Like as Charities Muffled and Silenced


The gov­ern­ment is suc­ceed­ing in muz­zling the com­mu­ni­ca­tions of some char­i­ties that advo­cate on pub­lic pol­icy issues. These char­i­ties are chang­ing their com­mu­ni­ca­tion under the cur­rent fed­eral polit­i­cal cli­mate. The com­bi­na­tion of extreme rhetoric by gov­ern­ment min­is­ters (con­flat­ing char­i­ties with money-launderers, crim­i­nal orga­ni­za­tions and ter­ror­ist orga­ni­za­tions) and the fear, prepa­ra­tion for, and after­math of, polit­i­cal audits from Canada Rev­enue Agency are caus­ing them to change their communications.

My inter­views with 16 char­ity lead­ers and five char­ity experts found that char­i­ties are chang­ing their com­mu­ni­ca­tions in four ways: the con­tent (what they say), tone (how they say it), fre­quency (how often they say it), and the chan­nel (they kind of media they use to say it).

My research data shows that though there is much vari­a­tion from group to group in how com­mu­ni­ca­tions are muf­fled, almost all char­i­ties reported direct or indi­rect changes of vary­ing inten­sity. Two char­i­ties reported being very alert to ensure that they are not muf­fling them­selves, but one leader notes that other orga­ni­za­tions might notice a change in the leader’s com­mu­ni­ca­tions: “It’s pretty hard to be objec­tive with your­self. … Maybe other groups would see a difference.”

Sev­eral par­tic­i­pants have made what they char­ac­ter­ize as minor tweaks, such as not refer­ring to “the Harper gov­ern­ment” or “the Con­ser­v­a­tive gov­ern­ment” or “Joe Oliver,” but rather “the cur­rent fed­eral gov­ern­ment” and “the Nat­ural Resources Min­is­ter.” Another notes chang­ing the tone of their web­site and brochures to sound “more edu­ca­tional” than pre­vi­ously. This par­tic­i­pant also speaks of the psy­chol­ogy that has emerged in the workplace.

You know, we were sit­ting hav­ing cof­fee the other day. .. One of the staff peo­ple says, ‘I just assume my telephone’s tapped.’ So, I think there’s a psy­cho­log­i­cal thing there. I don’t think it affects day-to-day activ­i­ties, but it does affect the psy­chol­ogy in which we work. The impli­ca­tion is that peo­ple get more angry and more focused …. The other thing is that they’re much more thought­ful and care­ful about what they say and do in any pub­lic set­ting, what they say on the phone, and what they com­mu­ni­cate by email and texting.”

See­ing “chill” as the right descrip­tor for the “cau­tion” around com­mu­ni­ca­tions, this par­tic­i­pant adds, “It also brings an edge because it angers peo­ple. It isn’t right, it’s a jus­tice issue.”

Another par­tic­i­pant says, “We’re much, much more cau­tious than we used to be. We’re tak­ing on dif­fer­ent issues and we’re tak­ing them on in dif­fer­ent ways. … Some [orga­ni­za­tions are] more cau­tious than oth­ers but all of us are more cau­tious than is healthy.”

One orga­ni­za­tion has cho­sen to take the safest pos­si­ble route, avoid­ing media, not sign­ing on to sec­tor doc­u­ments, not crit­i­ciz­ing the gov­ern­ment or com­ment­ing pub­licly, and not allow­ing any crit­i­cism of the gov­ern­ment to remain on their social media or web­site. This orga­ni­za­tion believes the gov­ern­ment is deter­mined to decer­tify it and just wants to “lie low” and so has effec­tively silenc­ing itself in the cur­rent climate.

Lead­ers reported a cou­ple dozen spe­cific dis­cur­sive changes being made by their orga­ni­za­tions or that they notice other orga­ni­za­tions in their sec­tor mak­ing. They range from small tweaks to web­sites and brochures to hid­ing from pub­lic vis­i­bil­ity. I’m not going to list them, but I will note some of the gen­er­al­ized approaches:

  1. Being “much more cau­tious” discursively
  2. Being “self-censoring’ more than previously
  3. Chang­ing to a more “edu­ca­tional” tone
  4. Com­mu­ni­cat­ing less about government
  5. Avoid­ing pub­lic profile
  6. Lay­ing low” as much as possible
  7. Even” avoid­ing com­ments on issues with no gov­ern­ment policy.

There are some pos­i­tive shifts also being made, which I will cover in a future blog.

Despite the large amount of media cov­er­age in the national con­ver­sa­tion trig­gered in part by my the­sis find­ings, and now with a life of its own, the fear of char­ity lead­ers appar­ently con­tin­ues. Reporters have been approach­ing char­ity lead­ers, try­ing to get them to share their sto­ries pub­licly, but so far only three have cho­sen to do so.

The over­all approach of lead­ers I inter­viewed was one of much greater care not to offend the gov­ern­ment or attract atten­tion of com­plainants or the CRA. In some of the dis­cus­sions, I found the fear pal­pa­ble, while in oth­ers the lead­ers were more san­guine, and one or two had found an oppor­tu­nity to make lemon­ade from lemons to bal­ance out the damage.

Though the char­i­ties may adapt, the impact of the muf­fling and diver­sion is not really about the char­i­ties any­way. It’s about the dam­age to the con­ver­sa­tions we need to have about impor­tant issues to ensure the best poli­cies are cho­sen. Char­i­ties are experts in their Mis­sion issues. We need to hear their per­spec­tives to get the full pic­ture about the deci­sions we need to make at this time of major eco­nomic shifts, envi­ron­men­tal chal­lenges, health care, the increas­ing num­ber of home­less, and so on.

That many char­i­ties have dif­fer­ent pol­icy ideas on these issues than are favoured by the cur­rent cab­i­net appears to be the core of the dam­ag­ing polit­i­cal cli­mate that they are now try­ing to negotiate.

Mean­while, please check out my Master’s the­sis and feel free to for­ward and tweet it. And you can fol­low me on Twit­ter: @GarethKirkby


I am a for­mer jour­nal­ist and media man­ager who recently com­pleted my Master’s the­sis for Royal Roads Uni­ver­sity and now work as a com­mu­ni­ca­tion pro­fes­sional. I have been awarded the Jack Web­ster Award of Dis­tinc­tion, among oth­ers, for my report­ing and editing.

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