Letting Charities Speak: reading through IMPACS papers on advocacy and democracy

Last week, when I was looking at the requirements for charitable status for Liberation BC, a friend of mine who works for a charity passed along some documents written by IMPACS (Institute for Media, Policy and Civil Society). I can't link to their website because they folded a few years ago, in 2007, which was unfortunate.

Dissenting voices are vital to any strong democracy.

They were "committed to the protection and expansion of democracy and to strengthening civil society" (Source), which led them into a project to assess and improve Canada's charity regulations about advocacy activities by registered charities.

In 2000, IMPACS released a report, "The Law of Advocacy by Charitable Organizations" written by Richard Bridge. This report is one of the most concise and easy-to-understand outlines of the current law and regulations governing advocacy by charities, in my opinion.

This document outlines the difficulties in administering these rules, which are based on three different sources:

i) decisions of the courts (the common law); ii) the federal Income Tax Act; and iii) the administrative policies of the Canada Customs and Revenue Agency (Revenue Canada).

A major reason for reform would be to reduce the amount of time spent (wasted) on interpreting vague and poorly-written regulations.

More importantly though:

In addition, the advocacy rules impede critical public policy debates by preventing the full participation of charitable organizations, which often possess great expertise and understanding in their fields of endeavour. This loss of informed voices is particularly problematic at a time when the relationships between public, private, and voluntary sectors are in fundamental change. It can be argued that these rules in effect impede the freedom of expression of charitable organizations – a freedom enshrined in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Under the current system, an organization can offer services that treat the symptoms of a particular issue. They provide the example of an organization that provides assistance to people with Hepatitis C. They might support the creation a needle exchange in order to stop the spread of the disease, but if they were to lobby government to change laws so that a needle exchange could be set up, they would risk loss of their charitable status – even though they would be more effectively and directly helping to solve the problem.

The same problems exist for organizations dedicated to protecting the environment for future generations. If, for example, their activities include attempting to influence public opinion, legislation or government policy in relation to habitat or species protection, pollution standards and enforcement or other basic issues, they could violate the current charity rules and lose or be denied charitable status. Indeed, these problems exist for organizations in all areas of charitable activity.

There's a lot more fascinating information in the report, and it's only about 30 pages long, so I'd recommend reading it if you are interested in these issues.

The report concludes:

It is clear from a review of the issue of advocacy by charitable organizations that the current Canadian approach is inadequate and in need of significant change. Improvements should include:

  • a clear legal definition of permissible advocacy;
  • clear quantifiable spending rules for advocacy activities to replace the 10 percent rule;
  • flexible regulatory options for the enforcement of the new rules;
  • greater transparency on the part of the federal regulators of this field; and
  • increased financial disclosure requirements concerning advocacy activities by charities.

Following up from this report, IMPACS (in conjunction with the Canadian Centre for Philanthropy – who merged with the Coalition of National Voluntary Organizations to form Imagine Canada in 2006) conducted a series of dialogues in cities across Canada focused on this particular topic. The results were published in "Let Charities Speak: Report of the Charities and Advocacy Dialogue."

In the late summer and fall of 2001, IMPACS launched the National Dialogue on Charities and Advocacy – a cross-Canada consultation process with voluntary sector leaders on this subject. It consisted of 17 day- long consultation sessions in the following cities: St John’s, Halifax, Fredericton, Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto (4 sessions), Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Edmonton, Calgary, Vancouver, Victoria, Yellowknife, and Whitehorse.

The purposes of the consultation sessions were: 1) to educate participants on the law; 2) to determine whether participants view the current law as a problem; and 3) to seek their guidance on the best option or options for reform.

The results from the process are detailed in the report, but the basic outcome was:

The National Dialogue revealed a deeply felt desire among voluntary sector organizations for change in this field. There is agreement across the country that the current restriction on advocacy by charities is an anachronism. If the restriction ever had validity and meaning, there is very strong opinion now that it has no place in modern Canada, for it is an impediment to democracy where informed and unfettered debate is essential.

There is also strong support for high standards of disclosure, transparency, and accountability to ensure virtuous practices by charities.

I just love the title. I work with a number of charities as part of my job, and this limit on advocacy and the vagueness of definition of advocacy are a fairly constant frustration.

The opening paragraphs of their later paper, "Charities: Enhancing Democracy in Canada" presents the case for advocacy by charities somewhat more strongly:

Canada's 80,000 charities form the core of the voluntary sector, and they are indeed essential to our collective well being. Unfortunately, Canada's charities face a limitation on their ability to give voice to shared concerns that is more restrictive than practices in virtually any other developed democracy.

This discussion paper is based on the assumption that vibrant, informed, and genuinely open debate, and greater civic engagement on all issues of public importance will lead to innovation, better public policy decisions, more efficient use of public resources, and a healthier, stronger democracy in Canada.

This paper argues that the impediment to charities adding their voices to the public debate adversely impacts the ability of charities to advance their charitable causes, and weakens the public policy debate and public policy development. This, in turn, ultimately weakens democracy in Canada. Removing the existing impediment to participation by charities, therefore, would be an important and achievable step in enhancing Canadian democracy.

Charities provide vital and beneficial services to their communities, but they also work to protect those who cannot speak for themselves: the marginalized, the environment, and animals. In a section entitled "Voices from the margin" the authors write:

Another related reason to encourage the participation of charities in public policy debate is that they very often speak on behalf of marginalized citizens who are unable to effectively engage in democratic processes on their own....


Allowing charities to advocate on behalf of those they serve brings voices to public policy debate that would otherwise not be heard. This, in turn, would help move toward a balance between those who are privileged and those who are not in terms of participation in public policy debates and influence on the decision-making.

A similar argument can be made for organizations that work on behalf of public causes such as protection of the environment or animal welfare. The natural environment, endangered species, and domestic animals have no voice of their own. Charities that work in these fields can enrich the public debate on such matters.

In the United States, organizations that would not be considered charitable in Canada are able to be charities, such as organizations working to protect animals and environmental organizations. Animal protection groups in Canada must devote 90% of their resources to services like veterinary care, running shelters or rescues, or spay and neuter clinics. They are only allowed to use 10% of their resources to do any work to change the systems that cause these problems.

In France, charity laws allow for organizations to advocate for their cause with whatever amount of resources they want.

With the demise of IMPACS it seems like this effort to "let charities speak" has fizzled away. Empowering charities to work to solve real problems would be beneficial to each of our causes and Canadian democracy in general. Poverty, drug addiction, animal welfare, the environment – all of these causes would be greatly benefited if our charities were able to openly enter the public debate without fearing the loss of their charitable status.

There is a lot more to these papers than I have covered here, and I would really encourage you to read through them.

Posted on by Glenn


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