A restrained voice for social change

Image Credit: ephotography

I believe social change happens on three main levels.

  1. It includes actions that fill immediate needs. Food banks. Shelters. Child care. Chaining yourself to an old growth tree.
  2. It includes projects that provide ongoing support or awareness raising. Groups for single mothers and survivors of abuse. Employment programs. Bike to work weeks. Farmers markets.
  3. It also involves changing legislation, infrastructure, and societal norms that are barriers to some balanced utopia where people, animals, and environments are free from persecution and exploitation.

The first two are where nonprofits and charities thrive. But for all the money, effort and talent that is poured into these actions, I feel that little progress beyond the anectodal has been made.

I believe that real progress, real change, happens because of the third. The Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) agrees:

Through their dedicated delivery of essential programs, many charities have acquired a wealth of knowledge about how government policies affect people’s lives. Charities are well placed to study, assess, and comment on those government policies. Canadians benefit from the efforts of charities and the practical, innovative ways they use to resolve complex issues related to delivering social services. Beyond service delivery, their expertise is also a vital source of information for governments to help guide policy decisions. It is therefore essential that charities continue to offer their direct knowledge of social issues to public policy debates.

But this is where the voice of charities and nonprofits are restrained.

Lobbying – an action used by industries and companies to advocate for self-serving policies, programs, tax incentives, etc  – is fairly unrestricted by government. Save registration requirement for lobbyists which acts to increase the transparency of lobbying efforts, industry organizations and individual companies can lobby to their hearts desire if they can get the ear of a minister, elected official, or other senior public servants.

However, this does not hold true for those advocating for charitable efforts (defined in Canada as the relief of poverty, the advancement of education, the advancement of religion, or other purposes that benefit the community, a definition that comes from a 1891 British legal ruling with roots even 300 years earlier). Registered charities in Canada are only able to spend 10% of their resources on political activities, which include “explicitly communicat[ing] to the public that the law, policy, or decision of any level of government in Canada or a foreign country should be retained…, opposed, or changed.” Charities with less than a $200,000 operating budget can dedicate more resources, on a sliding scale to 20%. Note that the percentage isn’t just $, it’s also people (including volunteers), space and other physical resources.

The CRA states that one main reason applications for charitable registration may be rejected is that “the organization seems to be devoting too many resources to political activities.”

It should be noted, however, that nonprofit organizations (those that are not registered as a charity, but as a society – e.g. under the BC Society Act) are able to dedicate as many resources as desired to political activities. However, these organizations do not receive the same tax benefits as charities (e.g. the ability to provide tax receipts for donations) and are not eligible to apply for a majority of foundation and government grants (which often require charitable registration numbers).

Overall, while lip service is given to the value nonprofits and charities can provide in policy change, the voice is restrained. We wouldn’t want the sounds of progressive social change to get too loud.

IMPACS, an organization that lasted briefly over the turn of the millennium, was working hard to analyze the law, dialogue with charities and nonprofits across Canada, and suggest alternatives to the current regulatory system. At a recent event in Vancouver, I met with a variety of individuals interested in this topic, and I decided to dig a bit further to get as much IMPACS documentation as possible. Thanks to Justin Ho over at United Community Services Co-op in Vancouver, here are the results for you to review if you are interested. Of particular practical use is the Election Took Kit. Si vous voudriez les documents en francais, envoyer-moi.

Impacts of the regulations on ethnocultural organizations:

Letters to government ministers and committees:

I’m trying to find out what current action (if any) is being taken on this issue. I sent a message to Michelle Gauthier, Vice-President, Public Policy & Outreach at Imagine Canada on December 5 to find out it it’s on their radar, but I haven’t heard back. If you are a charity wanting clarity, contact me or visit the CRA website. If you are interested in digger further with me, let me know.