A Consultation on the Future of Policy Advocacy by Charities in Canada

For two days in mid-May of this year, seventy-three invited participants assembled in Calgary to discuss and debate the appropriate roles for Canadian charities in the development of public policy. The consultation was the capstone event for the term of Dr. Roger Gibbins as Senior Fellow at Max Bell Foundation.

In his capacity as Senior Fellow, between October 2014 and June 2016, Dr. Gibbins developed the claim that Canadian charities have a moral obligation to participate in the development of public policy. In three articles in The Philanthropist, he elaborates the case and describes the current opportunity for the charitable sector to advance a reform agenda with the federal government. In addition to the three Philanthropist articles, Dr. Gibbins has prepared a 66-page manuscript entitled Call To Arms: Policy Advocacy and Canadian Charities. The full manuscript is available here.

The May 2016 consultation coincided with a unique opportunity presented by the new government in Ottawa. The recent mandate letter to The Honourable Diane Lebouthillier, Minister of National Revenue, includes the following bullet point, which is one of her three “top priorities”:

Allow charities to do their work on behalf of Canadians free from political harassment, and modernize the rules governing the charitable and not-for-profit sectors, working with the Minister of Finance.  This will include clarifying the rules governing “political activity,” with an understanding that charities make an important contribution to public debate and public policy.  A new legislative framework to strengthen the sector will emerge from this process. 

“Modernizing the rules governing the charitable and not-for-profit sectors” could include many things. That said, the focus for the consultation was the “important contribution to public debate and public policy” that charities make.

The objective for the consultation was to contribute to building consensus within Canada’s charitable sector on the question of how the sector would like its public policy advocacy to be valued and regulated by Canadian governments. It also aimed to identify some preliminary steps the charitable sector would need to undertake to help realize that consensus. The executive summary of the final report on the consultation follows below. The full report is available here.

Executive Summary – Final Report on Call To Arms: A Consultation on the Future of Policy Advocacy By Charities In Canada

Charities play a critically important role in the development of public policy in Canada. They bring a range of expertise and a set of values to policy development that would otherwise be under-represented or absent. Most agreed that, given their role in Canadian society, charities have a moral obligation to engage in policy development.

There was unanimous agreement among those who participated in this consultation that more and better public policy advocacy by charities would be a good thing. Several key issues were clarified: what CRA refers to as “political activity” is a narrowly defined set of activities that can be (though aren’t necessarily) useful to effective public policy advocacy. The definition of “political activity” could be made more clear by the regulator. There is an important distinction between charities and nonprofits when it comes to the policy on “political activity,” as the policy applies to the former but not the latter. The role of nonprofits (as opposed to charities) in public policy advocacy has not been well examined.

The ongoing project to audit fifty-four charities with a focus on “political activity” has, in recent years, drawn attention to the advocacy efforts of charities. In some respects, it challenges the prospects for an improved relationship between charities and the regulator. In some respects, it has galvanized pockets of the sector to collective action.

There was almost unanimous agreement among participants that partisan activities by charities should remain prohibited. There was little appetite to create an arm’s length commission to govern charities. There was a general consensus that the limit on “political activities” (i.e., “the 10% rule”) should be removed. Considerable support was given to the idea that this could be accomplished by removing reference to charitable “activities” from the Income Tax Act, and leaving the meaning of charity to be determined only in relation to charitable “purposes” as determined in the common law.

There was consensus that this focus on “political activities” should be conceived as the first stage in a two-stage process, the second of which would be to focus on the broader legislative framework governing charities.  In terms of strategy, there was general agreement that this work should be led by the sector’s umbrella organizations – notably Imagine Canada – and some of the large well-known charities. Finally, it was agreed that the desire for consensus across the sector should not over-ride the need to move quickly.

Allan Northcott is President of the Max Bell Foundation.

One thought on “A Consultation on the Future of Policy Advocacy by Charities in Canada

    Standards for establishing “political activity” I think need to be better explained by the government. The previous government seemed to see all who opposed it, including charities, as the enemy, and fair game for tax harassment. Small charities with limited resources were forced in some cases to take some of those resources to research and respond to government audits. Mere opposition to government policy should not just trigger such audits. Let’s have common sense in determining also how often and how detailed the audits are, when conducted. Continual auditing could also be seen as a form of harassment.

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