Canada Revenue Agency - Registered Charities’ Political Activities Consultations

January 2017

This report was prepared by:

Ipsos Public Affairs



Background and objectives


Things to consider


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Who, Where and When
Who - Among 167 representatives with responsibilities for tax filings at registered charities involved in political activities or potentially involved in political activities. All participants were identified by Canada Revenue Agency or requested to participate, and were then invited by Ipsos.
Where - A series of 14 facilitated in-person consultations carried out in 7 centers (two separate and distinct sessions to be conducted in each location).
When - These 2-hour sessions occurred between November 29th and December 13th 2016, during business hours.

7 centers where in-person consultations were carried out
November 29th in Winnipeg, Manitoba
November 30th in Calgary, Alberta
December 1st in Vancouver, British Columbia
December 6th in Halifax, Nova Scotia
December 7th in Toronto, Ontario
December 8th in Montreal, Quebec
December 13th in Ottawa, Ontario


Most participants had considerable experience in the sector, while a range of levels of involvement in political activities was represented

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Length of time they have worked in the not-for-profit or charities sector
Less than 1 year, 3
1-2 years, 7
3-4 years, 10
5-7 years, 22
8-10 years, 9
11+ years, 78

Extent organization is involved in political activities
Actively involved, 41
Somewhat involved, 47
Not very involved, 27
Not at all involved, 16

Description of role at their charity
Executive Director, Director General, Director of Finance, CEO, President, Coordinator, Director, Director of Administration, Administrator, Chair of the Board, Director of Operations, Finance Manager, Lawyer, Accountant, Accounting Manager, CFO, Executive Vice President, Legal Counsel, Vice President of Administration, Vice President of Finance, Advocacy and Government Relations, Assistant Director, Assistant Treasurer, Assistant Treasurer, Board member, Bookkeeper, CAO, Communications Director, Community Giving Coordinator, Controller, Development Coordinator, Director of Government Affairs, Director of IT Services, Director of Operations and Programs, Director of Policy and Research, Executive Team, Faith Leader, General Counsel, Government Relations and Public Policy, Head of Legal Services, Legal Compliance, Legal Director, National Coordinator, National Executive Director, Operations Director, Policy Analyst, Policy Director, Research Associate, Researcher, Secretary/Treasurer, Senior Analyst, Senior Counsel, Senior Legal Officer, Senior Manager Finance, Senior Manager of Government Relations, Senior Policy Analyst, Senior Researcher, Special Events Administrator, Spokesperson, Support, Treasurer, Vice Chair of the Board, Vice President, Vice President of Board, Vice President of Operations, Vice-Chair of the Board

Consultation session process

Detailed findings

Role of charities in public policy development

Current Role of Charities

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Limited and scope for more, Important role in voicing / raising concerns/causes and need for changes, Important role in policy development, Support function, Limited role due to lack of support by current laws, Important role, Advocacy, Limited role, Participant in development of public policy, Consultants and advocates, Awareness and advocacy


The role of charities in public policy development is significant…

According to participants in addition to the core charitable purposes they serve, charities are most effective when they act as:

“Charities offer a unique perspective on what concerns Canadians today. Public policy evolves from public opinion. I believe most Canadians appreciate their chosen charities to be able to advocate for them on what concerns them the most.”

“A critical voice on behalf of diverse communities in respect of policies that affect individuals and groups. Often key experts in the areas affected by particular policies and as such of considerable assistance to the development of policy that works.”

“Charities have an important role to play in bringing a specific perspective, creating broader awareness of issues and ideas related to public policy and encouraging the broader public to be engaged citizens.”

“Charities play a pivotal role in the development of public policy in Canada - through awareness campaigns, education programs and by providing opportunities for citizen engagement for individuals to take action to shape their country.”

They could contribute even more … if not limited by unclear rules

“I believe the role of charities is limited due to a lack of understanding, and fear of contravening the laws regarding unrestricted vs. limited political activities. I think this is starting to change given the federal government's actions over the past year to seek public input through consultations on a number of policy issues.”

“Charities have unique expertise and are expected by Canadians to contribute to public policy to get to the root of serious problems but currently this important role in our society is constrained by the 10 percent limit on political activity.”

“In theory, charities have the potential to play a crucial role in public policy debates and development. - In practice, that potential is not actively exercised as a result of a high level of risk aversion by charities in the context of unclear rules and a recent history of targeted audits and government funding cuts to charities that have been perceived as speaking out against federal government policies.”

“Charities play a vital role in the development of public policy -- given their expertise. Too often, however, the CRA's definition of political activities restrains the level of involvement that is optimal.”

They can contribute even more … in filling in the gaps in government services

“Charities should have a voice as they are often at the front line of service delivery to vulnerable people groups and can provide valuable input to governments.”

“Informing government officials on policy development to ensure they properly understand the issue and that policy effectively represents the interests of Canadians.”

The CRA’s interpretations and application of the rules

Across the discussion, a few key themes re-emerged connected to the CRA’s interpretation and application of the rules – some provided general feedback on current guidance …

… while others questioned the purpose of these rules.

There was considerable debate about the roles of charitable purpose as compared to charitable activity

“Public are not joining political parties because they don’t align with particular issues (they care about) contributing instead to charities who are driving issue specific changes.”

The CRA’s description of political activities

Call to political action


Political activity is any activity that explicitly communicates a call to political action (encourages the public to contact an elected representative or public official and urges them to retain, oppose, or change the law, policy, or decision of any level of government in Canada or a foreign country).

“These restrictions stifle the effectiveness of charities in pursuing their charitable purposes. For example if an environmental group seeks to prevent pollution then the most effective way to achieve this is likely to secure enhanced pollution prevention laws and engage the public to support the creation of such laws.”

“The commercial sector does not have these restrictions - while charitable sector is limited even though they are inherently organized for the public good.”

Communicate policy change to public


Political activity is any activity that explicitly communicates 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.

“So the question to me is what was the purpose of the political activity governance law? Is it to stop charities for influencing policy or to keep them out of partisan politics?”

“Our mandate is a freedom of expression organization. To fulfill our mandate we are running into political activity rules. People want to be engaged – are we free to engage them on issues for changing government policies (incl. international governments), or does it fall within the 10 percent?”

Pressure on elected official


Political activity is any activity that explicitly indicates in its materials (whether internal or external) that the intention of the activity is to incite, or 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.

“This definition seems to say that expressing concern via opinion is a political activity. Muzzling charities ability to speak on current events is completely contrary to the mandate of most all charities.”

Representations to government


Representations to elected representatives or public officials must:

  • only be undertaken as an activity that is subordinate to a charity’s charitable purposes
  • relate to an issue that is connected to a charity’s purposes
  • be well-reasoned
  • not contain information that the charity knows or ought to know is false, inaccurate, or misleading

Resource limits

Resource Limits, contentious for many…

There were a number of questions and concerns expressed around resource limits. Moreover, comments were remarkably consistent from one consultation session to the next. Concerns/questions tend to revolve around the following broad themes:

Justification for the 10% - 20% political activity limits

“This requirement suggests there is something wrong with charities being in this space, starting point is that charities shouldn’t be advocating, how can we enable these voices to participate instead of tracking if we go to a meeting”

“This needs to go. As a matter of principle charities should not be constrained in how they seek to advocate on behalf of their service recipients. Back to ‘purpose’ instead of activities.”

How should limits be calculated and what should be included?

The administrative burden created by tracking political activities:

Partisan political activities

Support for maintaining partisan political activity rules

“We support retention of partisan activity as offside, but guidance needs to be cleaned up.”

CRA's description of political activities has forced charities to dedicate time and resources to mitigate risk (e.g.. identifying which activities may be political) rather than spending those resources on fulfilling their mission.”

“If we have a stance on a particular issue and then a political party adopts it, is it then political?”

Communicating policy – Accessing the CRA’s educational materials on political activities

Current impressions of the CRA's educational materials on political activities

CRA (Charities Directorate) representatives have been very accessible and given clear cut answers, the site is helpful but text is very dense. People learn in different ways –videos are very good.”

“The material on the website is much more straightforward than it used to be.”

Suggestions to improve the CRA's educational materials on political activities

Many were not familiar with the Charities Directorate’s current communications offering (particularly those from belonging to smaller charities), some suggestions received included:

“Updates are important- there needs to be consistent way of finding out if things have changed.”

“The definition of political activities is fundamentally, and irremediably, ambiguous – leaving scope for arbitrary and inconsistent application of the rules.”

Other comments

Other issues raised

Ongoing charity audits

The need for fundamental legislative change to the Income Tax Act

An agency to oversee charities


Registered charities’ political activities consultations – Discussion guide

1.0 Introduction

Explain to participants:

2.0 Warm-up Questions / Icebreaker (10 minutes)

We are going to start off with a warm up exercise by asking you a few basic questions to get to know everyone in the room and get used to the online tool.


1. How long have you worked in the not-for-profit and/or charities sector?

a. Less than 1 year b. 1-2 years c. 3-4 years d. 5-7 years e. 8-10 years f. 10+ years  

2. What is your current role within your organization?

3. To what extent is your organization involved in political activities? That is…DEFINE

a. Actively involved b. Somewhat involved c. Not very involved

d. Not at all involved

4. In your view, what is the current role of charities in the development of public policy in Canada

3.0 CRA Presentation (5 minutes)

We’d like to discuss the why the CRA is undertaking this initiative in a bit more detail. [DESIGNATE] from the CRA is going to come up and provide a brief explanation of what this means and provide some context.


• The CRA’s interpretation and application of the rules 

• Communicating Policy – Accessing the CRA’s educational materials on political activities


During the course of the presentation we invite you to react with questions via the online platform. As time permits we will have the CRA representative clarify on any issues pertaining to the consultation at hand.

4.0 Ideal Policy Situation (15 minutes)


What role should charities play in driving public policy development, including legislative changes?

PROBE: calls to political action (ie. Contact your MP), communicating laws to the public, advocate for charitable cause, discuss directly with elected officials

PROBE: What limitations should there be on charities in Canada in contributing to public policy and legislation?


What does the term “advocacy” mean for your charity?


[IF NOT BROUGHT UP ORGANICALLY PROBE] For the CRA, advocacy is, generally speaking, a demonstrated support for a cause or particular point of view. Advocacy is not necessarily a political activity.


What should the rules be for charities’ political activities?

PROBE: Should they be allowed – yes/no?

PROBE: Should there be a limit on how much political activities charities should be able to engage in?

5.0 The CRA’s interpretation and application of the rules (60 minutes)

As a reminder, we’ve reposted the description of political activities from the materials you were asked to read in preparation. As we get into the details a bit, we’d like to remind you that your feedback today is anonymous and confidential. It will have no impact on your organizations’ future relationship with the CRA, beyond the insights obtained from your feedback for policy direction.

The CRA’s description of political activities (20 minutes)


The CRA’s description of political activities

The term political activity is not defined by the Income Tax Act. In these kinds of situations, the CRA looks at decisions of the courts for guidance. When Policy Statement CPS-022 was developed, the CRA interpreted the case law as meaning a political activity is any activity that:

In Budget 2012, the Income Tax Act was amended to add another, fourth type of political activity: any gift from a charity to a qualified donee intended to support the recipient’s political activities. In short, a qualified donee is any organization that can issue an official donation receipt to a Canadian individual or corporation. Canadian registered charities are likely the best-known type of qualified donee, but there are others, such as certain universities outside of Canada, and registered Canadian municipalities.


Is the CRA’s description of political activities relevant to the work charities are actually carrying out?


Based on this description and your previous experiences with the CRA regarding Political Activities for Registered Charities, what issues or challenges do charities encounter with the existing policies on charities’ political activities?


What obstacles does your charity encounter in carrying out political activities, particularly in regards to the rules in the CRA’s policy statement and other educational resources?


Do these policies help or hinder charities in advocating for their causes or for the people they serve?

Representations to Government (10 minutes)


Representations to government

When a registered charity makes a representation, whether by invitation or not, to an elected representative or public official, the activity is considered to be charitable, rather than political. Even if the charity explicitly advocates that the law, policy, or decision of any level of government in Canada or a foreign country ought to be retained, opposed, or changed, the activity is considered to fall within the general scope of charitable activities.

Representations to elected representatives or public officials must:


Has your charity made representations directly to elected representatives or public officials? Why?

PROBE: How does this support your other charitable activities? How effective are these representations? Is this something you will continue to do in the future?


Is it clear to you how the CRA’s position on how the political activities rules do or do not apply to representations to government?

PROBE: How should representations by charities to government be treated by the CRA under the political activities rules?

Resource limits (15 minutes)


Resource Limits

The Income Tax Act allows a charity to carry out political activities if it devotes substantially all of its resources to charitable activities. The CRA typically interprets;

The CRA offers some flexibility to smaller charities by administratively interpreting substantially all as meaning up to 20% for charities with less than $200,000 in annual income. Further, in exceptional cases, charities that have not devoted the maximum allowable amount of their resources to political activities in previous years can carry forward unused amounts up to two years.

The CRA does not give guidelines on how a charity should calculate and compare its use of resources, but states a charity should use a reasonable and consistent method to calculate its use of resources for political activities.


What challenges do you face in calculating resources spent on political activities?

PROBE: How do you think the CRA should interpret the term resources? Should it be limited to financial, or also include other resources like capital, human resources, or time?


How should the CRA administer the provision that requires a charity to devote substantially all of its resources on charitable activities?

PROBE: How do you think the CRA should interpret the term substantially all?

PROBE: Is the current 90% interpretation sufficient, should it be stricter? More lenient?

PROBE: Should the ITA place tangible limits on resources spent on political activities?


As you are tasked with calculating this, how would you calculate the percentage of resources used for political activities? What would you include? Would you exclude anything?

PROBE: Are guidelines needed to ensure this is fairly applied?

Partisan political activities (15 minutes)


Partisan political activities

The Income Tax Act prohibits a charity from using any of its resources to directly or indirectly support or oppose a political party or candidate for political office (often referred to as partisan political activities).

The CRA’s position is that it is not a partisan political activity for a charity to make its views known on public policy issues, as long as the charity does not explicitly connect its views to any political party or candidate for public office.


Should charities be prohibited from supporting or opposing political parties or candidates for public office?

PROBE: Should the same rules apply to all charities?


How broadly or narrowly should the CRA administratively interpret “directly or indirectly” support/oppose?

PROBE: For example, can criticizing a sitting government ever constitute opposition to the political party (or parties) forming the government, or does praising a Member of Parliament ever constitute support of that MP’s political party?

PROBE: What would direct support/opposition look like? What is indirect support/opposition?

PROBE: Should prohibitions be limited to direct support only?

6.0 Communicating Policy (15 minutes)

Let’s talk more generally about the CRA’s role in interpreting and applying rules as well as communicating these rules to registered charities.


Is the CRA’s policy guidance on political activities clear, useful, and complete? 

PROBE: What are they doing well? What is missing?

PROBE: What type of information have you accessed in the past? Was it helpful?


Accessing the CRA’s educational materials on political activities (10 minutes)

The CRA has several educational resources on its website regarding charities’ political activities. Most of these documents and videos were developed as a result of the measures in Budget 2012, which provided funding to the CRA to enhance its educational materials on political activities.


Have you read or viewed any of these materials before participating in this consultation? If so, what materials? If not, why not?

PROBE: Lack of interest, difficulty finding this information

7.0 Bringing the Discussion Together (10 minutes)

We’ve come full circle, we started today talking about the ideal policy relationship with the CRA, then discussing different issues concerning political activities for registered charities.



Now that we’ve had a more in depth conversation about the different issues concerning political activities, how do you think the CRA should handle political activities conducted by registered charities?


Do you have any further comments or feedback to make concerning political activities of registered charities?

8.0 Final Questions (5 minutes)

Before we wrap up our conversation today I would like you to take a few minutes to complete the following questions based on our discussions today.


Response items:

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