Policy advocacy with the regulatory shackles off: Mixed results

As Canadians prepared to vote, questions were being asked about whether a risk-averse charitable sector had missed an opportunity to help shape public policy.

As Canadians prepared to vote, questions were being asked about whether a risk-averse charitable sector had missed an opportunity to help shape public policy.

Less than a week from election day, only 10 of the country’s 86,000 charities had registered as third-party advertisers in the campaign, meaning they had spent more than $500 to amplify a policy message that is also policy of any registered political party. Four of the 10 (out of a total of 89 third-party intervenors) are environmental organizations advocating about climate change.

“An election is the prime opportunity to engage Canadians on public policy issues they would not ordinarily be paying attention to,” says John Cameron, an expert on charities in the Department of International Development Studies at Dalhousie University. “This is an opportunity lost.”

Such hesitation is not a new phenomenon. Political advocacy made up a miniscule amount of charitable spending in 2019, but relaxation in the rules governing such activity was still new. Two years later, why does that hesitancy linger?

Sector observers offer a number of explanations. They say there is a fear that a deep engagement in advocacy may turn off donors who are not invested in policy change over direct spending on an issue. There may also be lingering confusion among smaller charities about the rules, which changed in 2019, leading to a fear of running afoul of government regulators. Some charities believe they can get their message out without registering with the Canada Revenue Agency, and have opted to sit this one out.

Allan Northcott, president of Calgary’s Max Bell Foundation, often wonders about the motivations of charities that become politically engaged. Some organize all-candidates meetings or become more active on social media to juice donations, not necessarily shape public policy.

“One of the questions we always grapple with is, if you want to effect policy change, how much muscle should you flex in the political arena as compared to more direct dealings with people in the public service?” he says.

Under rules changed by the Liberal government in 2019 in the wake of a Supreme Court ruling, there is no longer any limit on policy work done by a charity, as long as that work is deemed to further the charitable purpose of the organization. (Partisan activity is still out of bounds.)

An election is the prime opportunity to engage Canadians on public policy issues they would not ordinarily be paying attention to.

John Cameron

Charities can publish an analysis of party positions on their websites or social media platforms, even if it is clear the positions of one of the parties aligns with the views of the charity. But charities cannot endorse a particular party or position. In other words, no red Xs or green checkmarks beside a party position.

According to Elections Canada rules, charities become third-party advertisers and must register if they take a position on a public policy issue that is associated with a candidate or political party (even if they are not mentioned) and spend more than $500 on issue advertising. Advertising can include paying to boost the charity’s profile on search engines.

Mark Blumberg, a Toronto charity lawyer, encourages non-profits to become more active in non-partisan politics, but up to a point. Those charities that go all in on political activity can no longer fulfill their charitable mission and may erode trust in the sector, he says.

But Cameron wonders why more large environmental charities don’t take the simple step of registering as third parties so they can amplify their messages.

Northcott believes some feel they are working in a grey area, although they are likely within the new regulations.

He notes that charitable think tanks at either end of the political spectrum have long carved out space for more opinionated advocacy. The Fraser Institute, on the right, argues for lower taxes and less spending, while the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives has published analyses showing how new daycare commitments by the Liberals and the NDP could save families thousands of dollars.

Neither registered as a third party, but they are not advertising, and they don’t take an explicit political stand. They can argue their research is part of their regular work. They also get earned media in the form of mentions in news stories in mainstream media (and now The Philanthropist Journal) at no cost.

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