Can Canadian Charities Engage in Political Activities?

THIS POST HAS BEEN WRITTEN BY GUEST AUTHOR BARRY W. BUSSEY, VP-LEGAL AFFAIRS, CCCC.

Serving on the front lines of education, the advancement of religion, and the relief of poverty, charities have valuable insight and experience to contribute to public debate and the development of public policy.

In light of this, you may be asking yourself:   “Can charities engage in political activities?”

The answer is “yes”—but only to a very limited extent expressly provided for in the Income Tax Act (ITA). Without following the ITA provisions, a charity would jeopardize its charitable status by using its resources on political activities.

Prohibited Political Activities for Charities

A charity cannot take part in partisan political activities, which means it cannot directly support or oppose a specific candidate or political party for public office. It is important that charities use neutral language in their communications. The CRA has clarified that, as long as a charity restricts its comments to the political party’s policy, and does not explicitly connect its views to the political party, it would likely be carrying out a non-partisan political activity.[1]

Some of the examples CRA provides of prohibited political activities include

  • inviting a specific candidate for public office to speak at a charity event without giving the same courtesy to the other candidates, or inviting candidates to speak at different meetings that are not of equal opportunity in terms of prestige or audience;
  • treating an election campaign team to a meal;
  • publicly endorsing a candidate;
  • giving money or non-cash gifts to a candidate or political party, either directly or indirectly;
  • singling out elected officials or a party for its voting record on any particular vote or its voting pattern over a series of votes.[2]

Permitted Political Activities for Charities

Canadian law does not recognize political purposes as charitable; however, a charity may generally spend up to 10% of its resources on political activities that are ancillary and connected to its charitable purposes. The term “resources” is not defined in the ITA, but CRA interprets the term to include not only money, but also property, volunteer and staff time, and capital assets.

The ITA does not define political activities, but Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) generally understands it to mean “any activity that explicitly communicates to the public that a law, policy, or decision of any level of government inside or outside of Canada should be retained, opposed, or changed.”

Some of the examples CRA provides of permitted political activities include

  • buying a newspaper advertisement to pressure the government;
  • organizing a public march and rally to Parliament Hill;
  • organizing a conference to support the charity’s opinion;
  • hiring a communications specialist to arrange a media campaign;
  • using a mail campaign to urge supporters to contact the government.[3]

Further Resources

Curious to learn more? We’ve compiled a list of helpful resources:

 CRA video series on Charities and their Participation in Political Activities

 

[1] CRA, “Partisan political activities,” online: http://www.cra-arc.gc.ca/chrts-gvng/chrts/cmmnctn/pltcl-ctvts/prtsnctvts-eng.html (March 12, 2013).

[2] Ibid.

[3] CRA Policy Statement CPS-022, Political Activities, online: http://www.cra-arc.gc.ca/chrts-gvng/chrts/plcy/cps/cps-022-eng.html at section 14.3.

Noteworthy is provided for general information purposes and does not constitute legal or professional advice. Every organization’s circumstances are unique. Before acting on the basis of information contained in this blog, readers should consult with a qualified lawyer for advice specific to their situation.