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Comment: Silencing charities just the tip of the iceberg

It’s a scary time to work for a Canadian charity.

It’s a scary time to work for a Canadian charity. If the fear of imminent funding cuts, reliance on unpaid interns and volunteers to keep the organization afloat and pressure to turn every project into a self-sustaining social entrepreneurship venture weren’t enough, you have a thorough, multi-year audit of your political activities to look forward to.

The recent Canada Revenue Agency crackdown on everyone from Pen Canada to Oxfam — noting, quite appallingly, that “preventing poverty” isn’t an appropriate charitable aim after all — has Canada’s charitable sector wondering: When is enough, enough?

And if you think the issues facing charities aren’t relevant to your life, think again — your local museum, soccer club, Alzheimer’s day program and national park preservation committee are likely registered charities.

The political advocacy of charities in Canada isn’t new, nor does it threaten how our democracy works or whether our tax dollars and philanthropic donations are used appropriately. If charitable organizations,,which often start from the volunteer efforts of committed, engaged citizens, are silenced in their advocacy activities, where will healthy political dialogue come from in this country? Growing rates of volunteerism in Canada suggest that, despite a worrying decline in voter turnout, especially among youth, our charitable sector could be an ideal venue to strengthen civic participation.

The fear-mongering culture created by such frequent political audits is, unfortunately, only the tip of the iceberg in how Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government has approached its relationship with the charitable sector. Prior to the 2010 G8 Summit, at which maternal health was a critical part of the agenda, federal funding for 11 Canadian women’s organizations was cut due to their pro-choice advocacy. Similar restraints have been placed on organizations in immigrant settlement services, environment and climate change advocacy and anti-poverty.

While compliance with the CRA’s 10 per cent threshold for advocacy activities is important to prevent abuses to the system, such an audit culture drains the resources of small organizations and paralyzes their participation in the political process. I donate to charities, as do many other Canadians, because I want them to take a stand on issues I believe in.

Federal funding, when it is available, is often short-lived for Canadian charities. Under Harper’s government, charities can increasingly get only project-based funding rather than ongoing, and decidedly less sexy, core organizational funding that enables long-term sustainability. By refusing to fund charitable organizations long-term, we assume that services such as food banks, counselling services, support groups and assisted recreation programs are not integral to the fabric of our society.

In addition, the emphasis on short-term, project-based funding also creates a relentless focus on outcomes and monetization post-project. Grant applications for charities can often read nonsensically: “What was the reduction in the rate of re-incarceration after a brief eight-week intervention? Now how can your organization monetize this program so it can be entirely self-sustained in the future?”

This creates what is often described as a “shadow state” in social policy — when government downloads the provision of services to charitable organizations as arm’s-length partners and uses policies, such as CRA’s political audit crackdown, to limit their independence and constrain their ideological stances. It paralyzes innovation, muzzles healthy political discourse and disrespects the fundamental role of charities in supporting our country’s most disadvantaged communities.

The women’s sector — with which I am most familiar — is still reeling from policy and funding changes imposed several years ago. These changes included the elimination of a $1-million independent research fund on women’s issues, the restriction of all advocacy and legal reform activities for grant recipients (e.g. a women’s shelter advocating on issues pertaining to violence against women) and the removal of the word “equality” from the funding program’s goals.

The CRA’s expanding audit culture is leading charities in a similar direction, but creates a confusing paradox: If charities can’t advocate on the issues that mandate their existence in the first place (a preventive approach) and can’t expect long-term government funding (a reactive approach), where will change come from?

This kind of audit culture actively prevents the civic participation our democracy relies upon, silences the organizations we care about most and forces our thriving charitable sector to become unfairly apolitical. If this frustrates you, donate to charities whose advocacy activities you believe in as a sign of solidarity and support.

Charities, you’re not alone.


Joanne Cave of Edmonton studies social policy and non-profit-sector sustainability at the University of Oxford as a 2013 Rhodes Scholar.

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