A call for Canadian charities to become politically active
TheStar.com – opinion/editorialopinion
Published On Sat Apr 21 2012. Alan Broadbent
The recent federal budget launched a shot across the bows of Canadian registered charities to be careful about how they engage in political activities. The shot was not really a surprise as Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his Natural Resources minister, Joe Oliver, had already aimed a few volleys at the sector in their promotion of the tar sands and the Northern Gateway pipeline proposal.
Canada’s charity law permits registered charities to engage in limited political activity for up to 10 per cent of their activity. The regulations define permissible activity. Excluded are partisan activities like supporting or opposing specific candidates or parties. The political activity must be related to the charitable purpose of the organization, and generally aimed at creating a broader understanding of issues and problems.
Most Canadian charities engage in no political activities. They are the traditional charities familiar to the Conservative members of the Senate who in recent hearings expressed surprise that charities had any public policy or advocacy role. In fact, most charities do not engage in public policy or advocacy, have never seen it as part of their role, and are likely unaware that they are permitted to do so.
Even among those charities that have an interest in public policy, there is a reluctance to engage, and few play anywhere close to the 10 per cent level. The reluctance arises in some cases from a lack of knowledge of the rules, or uncertainty in what they actually mean (despite the presence of a useful memo from the Canada Revenue Agency on the matter), or a fear of incurring the wrath of government.
Most charities in Canada are small, with few professional staff members, each of whom generally has to wear a variety of hats. They are primarily occupied with fundraising and operating issues. Fundraising may be in the form of applying for grants from governments or private grant-makers like foundations and corporations. Many of them deal with hard problems of human suffering that have fallen between the cracks of big governments and big charities.
As such, they don’t have much time for public policy work, for advocacy on their issue, or for buttonholing politicians. They hope others will play that role. Generally in the sector, everyone knows that what the big players with the big budgets, governments and corporations, do is important. Not only is it important, it can be transformative.
Since governments have shed much of their policy capacity in the last few decades, they need good ideas from outside, and particularly from those working close to the coal face of society’s problems. And many corporations are more than willing to step up to help deal with crucial community issues, as evidenced by so many changing their human resource practices to access our burgeoning immigrant talent better.
This is the intelligence of the public policy behind the 10 per cent rule, and why it is good that the CRA makes efforts to be clear about what is permitted. The CRA guidelines are sensible, and geared to helping inform public policy formation.
So it is useful that the recent federal budget drew attention to the permissibility of charities engaging in public policy. Many charities who weren’t aware of the 10 per cent rule can now gear up to add a public policy dimension to their work, to begin to get a grip on one of the biggest levers of change for the better. And those charities which have been reluctant, or been underutilizing their capacity, can gear up to be even more effective participants in the public discourse on important matters facing our communities and the nation.
As for the source of these funds for public good, we should be grateful that people in other countries want to help Canada. Where would stem cell research be had it not been for U.S. private support coming to Canada during the Bush years when stem cell research was discouraged in the U.S.? Where would many of our university research programs be without significant foreign sourced funding?
As we are happy to have foreign investment to develop our commerce, so should we be happy to have it support our communities.
Alan Broadbent is chairman and CEO of Avana Capital Corp. and founder and chair of Maytree.
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