How can a charity avoid CRA scrutiny of its political activities? It takes just two simple steps: 1) Lean to the right; 2) Do not report any political activity on your CRA return, no matter how public and vocal you are.
That’s the damning conclusion of the Broadbent Institute after its review of recent CRA audit trends. The study, Stephen Harper’s CRA: Selective audits, “political” activity, and right-leaning charities, was released in October 2014, two years after the Harper government’s budget increase allocated specifically to policing charities’political activity.
Environmental, human rights, anti-poverty targeted
By now, leaders of charities engaged in research or advocacy of any kind can recite from memory the narrow boundaries around their political activity. They must be non-partisan, and can spend no more than 10% of their resources on activity the CRA deems political. But the Broadbent Institute accuses CRA of a biased interpretation of the rules:
Of late, derisive government remarks about the work of environmental charities, and audits of charities known to be critical of government policies, have raised the prospect of a creeping politicization of the CRA’s work. This has called into question the motivation behind its scrutiny of certain groups over others, given that many charities (environmental, human rights, anti-poverty) being audited have disagreed with policies of the Conservative government. (Stephen Harper’s CRA, page 1)
Many other reports have commented that audits and warnings appear to be concentrated in the environmental, international and human rights sectors. CRA has targeted organizations as wide-ranging as Amnesty International and the David Suzuki Foundation. A case too recent to be included in the study as the ultimately ridiculous example is that of the Kitchener-Waterloo Field Naturalists (annual budget, $16,000), which received a warning letter two days after complaining to two federal cabinet ministers about chemical pesticides that appear to threaten bee colonies.
A different picture on the right
By contrast, the Institute's sample of ten right-leaning charities claiming 0% of their resources were devoted to political activities revealed public statements recommending such Harper-friendly initiatives as -
Clearer still, in an apparent violation of the hard and fast rule forbidding non-partisanship, the Energy Probe Research Foundation specifically criticized the Ontario NDP, with derogatory remarks about both its policies and its leader.
Continued, deliberate silencing
It all adds up to a “continued and deliberate silencing of critical voices,” the report claims. Further, it suggests that right-leaning charities show a pattern of obfuscation and deception when interpreting CRA’s definition of political activity, and that the agency turns a blind eye to their resulting claim that they spend neither a penny nor a minute on such activity.
The report concludes with a call for an independent enquiry into the process by which CRA selects charities for audit of political activity, and a probe to ensure that its choices are completely free of political pressures. In the interests of free speech and full access to research, thought leadership and opinion of all kinds, it is to be hoped that the organizations claiming to speak for Canadian charities support that call.
Progressive or conservative, the blunting of the ability of civil society to advocate and to engage in that most fundamental democratic right – debate and, occasionally, dissent – should concern us all. (Stephen Harper’s CRA, page 23. Download the entire report here.)
Janet Gadeski, President of Hilborn and Editor of Hilborn Charity eNEWS, brings two decades of experience in fundraising and nonprofit management to her work of providing information and ideas to the leaders of Canada’s nonprofit sector.