Charities and Political Activity

The question of whether, how, and to what extent charities can engage in political activity can be confusing. Some people believe that charities cannot carry on any political activity at all, while others believe that they can do so without limitations. The reality lies in between. Charities can carry on certain kinds of political activity, within certain limits. So it’s important to understand what those kinds and those limits are.

Charitable Purposes vs. Political Purposes

All charities are required by law to have exclusively charitable purposes, such as relief of poverty, advancement of education, advancement of religion, and other purposes of benefit to the community. The CRA may examine a charity’s activities to determine whether they serve its charitable purposes or whether the charity has adopted political purposes, which are not allowable.

Charitable Activity: Permitted without Limit

Activities that the CRA determines to be charitable are permitted without limit. According to CRA policy, these activities include the following:

  • Communicating with the public or public officials about a charity or an issue related to its work, provided that the activity is connected and subordinate to the charity’s purposes and is well-reasoned
  • Communicating with a public official or elected representative, even to advocate that a law, government decision, or government policy be retained, opposed, or changed, provided that all representations
    • are connected and subordinate to the charity’s purpose
    • are well-reasoned
    • contain no false, inaccurate, inflammatory, or misleading information
  • Releasing the text of a representation before or after it is delivered to a public official or elected representative, provided that the entire text is released and it contains no explicit call to political action
  • Distributing the charity’s research, including distributing it to all election candidates
  • Publishing or giving an interview about a research report
  • Presenting a research report to a parliamentary committee
  • Distributing a research report to all members of Parliament
  • Participating in an international policy development working group
  • Joining a government advisory panel to discuss policy changes

Definition of Political Activity

Activities that the CRA determines to be political are permitted within certain limits, which are described below. Political activity includes the following:

  • Explicitly issuing a call to political action: that is, encouraging the public to contact elected representatives or public officials and urge them to retain, oppose, or change the law, policy, or decision of any level of government in Canada or a foreign country
  • Explicitly indicating that the intention of an activity is to incite, or to organize to put pressure on, an elected representative or public official to retain, oppose, or change the law, policy, or decision of any level of government in Canada or a foreign country
  • Making a gift to another qualified donee (an organization that can issue tax receipts) that is intended for a political purpose

A Possible Exception

A charity’s representation to an elected representative or public official is considered charitable, not political, if all of the following conditions are met:

  • The representation is connected to and subordinate to the charity’s charitable purposes.
  • It is well-reasoned, meaning that it is based on factual information that is methodically, objectively, fully, and fairly analyzed, and it presents and addresses serious arguments and relevant facts that might counter it.
  • It contains nothing that the charity knows, or ought to know, is false, inaccurate, or misleading.
  • It is nonpartisan, meaning that it neither directly or indirectly supports or opposes a political party or candidate for public office.

If all of the above statements are true, the charity’s representation is considered charitable. If even one of them is false, it is political.

Allowable Political Activities: Permitted within Limits

Charities are allowed to engage in certain kinds of political activity as long as they devote substantially all (over 90%) of their resources—money, staff and volunteer time, capital assets, and so on—to their charitable purposes and activities.

  • The political activity must be nonpartisan. This means that it must not support or oppose, either directly or indirectly, any political party or candidate for public office.
  • The political activity or issue must be connected (ancillary) or incidental (subordinate) to the charity’s purposes. This means it must be a minor focus of the charity. If it becomes the main way that the charity furthers its purposes, it may have become the charity’s end or unstated purpose, which is not acceptable to the CRA.
  • The charity’s views must be based on a well-reasoned position.

Examples of allowable political activity include

  • Organizing a conference in support of the charity’s stance on a specific matter
  • Organizing a march or rally, or buying advertisements, to pressure the government concerning a particular law or policy
  • Hiring a communications specialist to organize a media campaign
  • Using a mail campaign to encourage supporters to contact the government

Prohibited Political Activities: Never Allowed

Illegal and partisan political activities are never allowed. Political activity is partisan if it supports or opposes, either directly or indirectly, any political party or candidate for public office.

For example, when a political party or candidate for public office supports a policy that is also supported by a charity, the charity may promote the policy, but it cannot directly or indirectly support the candidate or political party.

Examples of prohibited partisan political activity include

  • Donating to a political party which supports the charity’s view on a given matter
  • Inviting a candidate for office to speak without equally inviting all other candidates
  • Singling out or publishing the voting record of a particular elected representative or political party
  • Hosting an all-candidates meeting or forum in a partisan manner
  • Inviting candidates to speak at different dates or times
  • Explicitly connecting the charity’s position on a given issue to the position taken on the issue by a candidate or political party

Note that all of these apply even if a candidate or office-holder is a member of your congregation. You may not give them any support, platform, or publicity that you do not equally give to all candidates and parties.

Activities Permitted during an Election

During an election period, the CRA allows certain special kinds of political action.

  • Employees, leaders, and members of a charity may assist any candidate or political party in their personal capacity. However, they should not make partisan speeches or comments at charity functions or in charity publications. In other situations, they should indicate that the opinions they express are their own, not those of the charity.
  • A charity may publicize information about candidates and political parties if it does not single out any of them, it does not call for any of them to be supported or opposed, and the information is connected and subordinate to its purpose.
  • A charity may charge fair market value rent to a political party or candidate for speaking engagements or meetings, as long as it gives equal opportunity and access to all political parties and candidates. Even so, consistently renting to only certain parties or candidates may draw the CRA’s scrutiny.

The CRA monitors charities more closely during election campaigns. Be careful not to accidentally endanger your congregation’s charitable registration!

Canadian UU Congregations and Political Activity

Your congregation should regularly take stock of its social action and political activity. Because the board of management is ultimately accountable for the congregation’s affairs, it’s good practice for the board to sign off on all social action, advocacy work, and political activity.

Here are some questions that can help you assess yourselves and make any changes that may be necessary:

  • Are board members and other leaders familiar with your stated charitable purposes?
  • Are your social action projects charitable or political?
  • Are your political activities nonpartisan? Are they connected and subordinate to your charitable purposes?
  • Does your congregation devote substantially all of its resources (more than 90%) to its charitable purposes?