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Melt the “charity chill”

publication date: Oct 16, 2013
author/source: Janet Gadeski

Say “advocacy” around activists, and many people will picture confrontational stunts rather than strategic alliance-building behind the scenes. But the latter is one of the most effective tactics charities have adopted to tackle huge problems like passing laws against drunk driving, restricting smoking and toughening laws for equity.

Ken Wyman believes that charities must advocate. Charities represent millions of people whose expertise and voices belong in public policy discussions, he says.

Such advocacy can be controversial, even dangerous for charities. When Tides Canada raised concerns about pollution stemming from Alberta’s tar sands development, Conservative senator Doug Finley said environmental groups who oppose such development are attacking Canada’s economy and don’t deserve charitable status. And other charities have seen their federal grants slashed after challenging federal government policies and actions.

Such consequences have created a chill throughout the charitable sector. When Ken offered a webinar on advocacy and allowable activities for charities, some charities were nervous about signing up for it. Others, he said, wanted to confirm that they could ask their questions anonymously through the webinar chat line.

Loss of funding, loss of status not connected

Within the webinar, Ken dealt with two separate consequences: the expensive, time-consuming Canada Revenue Agency audits resulting from too much or the wrong kind of political activity, and the potential loss of government funding often explained as the charity getting “caught in shifting funding priorities.”

Those outcomes are not connected. Only one charity (Physicians for Global Survival Canada) has ever lost its registration over the extent of its political activity. But these days a charity may well lose government funding after carrying out highly publicized advocacy activities that are well within CRA guidelines – hence Ken’s advice: “If you plan to attack, do not depend heavily on government or corporate support.”

Assuming you’ve weighed and accepted the risk of losing government grants, what are the boundaries for allowable political activities under CRA guidelines? Think relevant and non-partisan and you’ll be on the right track. A charity may undertake activities that:

  • Try to retain, change or oppose a law in Canada or abroad;
  • Are carried out only to further the charity’s charitable purposes;
  • Do not support a particular party or candidate.

Up to 10% of a charity’s resources (money, staff time and physical assets) can be used in such activities. Under some circumstances, charities that are small or facing infrequent situations may spend more in a particular year.

Charitable activities

The first step for charities wanting to be effective at advocacy is simply this – know the rules. According to CRA, these activities, though they may sound political, are in fact charitable:

  • Disseminating factual information;
  • Urging people to obey or enforce the law;
  • Showing the voting records of all politicians; and
  • Inviting all candidates to speak at meetings.

These activities must be connected to and subordinate to the charity’s main purpose, i.e., its charitable objects. They may not include a call to political action or favour one party or candidate. And they must be based on a well-reasoned position.

Political content: 10%

CRA allows charities to engage in these permitted political activities, provided that 90% or more of its resources remain devoted to charitable activities:

  • Sharing views on existing or proposed laws and policies;
  • Urging supporters to contact the government;
  • Buying ads to pressure the government;
  • Organizing a march to Parliament Hill.

Don’t even think about . . .

Prohibited political activities for charities fall into two categories: partisan or illegal. Charities may not support or oppose any political party or candidate for office in Canada or abroad. They may not present partisan views in the guise of objective, educational material. And they may not advocate or carry out illegal activities such as property destruction, violence or sabotage.

While both charitable and permitted activities may fall into the category of advocacy (and put a charity’s government funding at risk), only prohibited activities carry the risk of losing charitable registration.

What’s the wisest way to use the 10% allowable portion of revenues for political activities? Once you’ve reviewed the facts about charitable, permitted and prohibited activities, Ken recommends five more steps to make your campaign effective. Watch for a second article in the October 31 issue of Hilborn Charity eNEWS that will cover those five steps.

This material was taken from Ken Wyman’s webinar, “Melt the Charity Chill,” presented in September by the Sustainability Network.

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