Rules of Engagement for Nonprofit Advocacy

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By Lina Khatib, CCVO Policy Analyst

Nonprofits Vote: Albertans go to the Polls in 2019

As noted in a previous post, CCVO is rolling out an election toolkit to provide nonprofits with resources, tools and information to engage in policy advocacy in the upcoming provincial election. The date of the election is not yet released but will need to be called by the end of May 2019. The full toolkit will be published in February 2019. Please follow the CCVO blog as we release installments of the toolkit to help you engage in the provincial election.

Before, during, and after election periods, nonprofits can help spread knowledge about voting rights and how relevant issues impact both communities and individuals. When nonprofits provide a platform for public policy dialogue, more voices can be heard, and our democratic process is strengthened.

Before engaging in public policy advocacy, nonprofits should make sure they understand the rules and regulations around what they can and cannot do, so that they can engage with clarity and confidence. Knowing the rules can empower your nonprofit to lead and provoke important discussions about issues, raising much-needed awareness for these issues with politicians, decision-makers, and the public.

An election is a great opportunity to advocate for public benefit. As our friends at the Ontario Nonprofit Network say, “Don’t be intimidated by rules and regulations about what charities and nonprofits can do during elections. Get informed!” The first steps to becoming informed, involve the understanding of three relevant regulatory areas:

  1. Canada Revenue Agency’s Regulations

  2. Lobbying

  3. Third-Party Advertising

The above areas may or may not apply to your nonprofit, depending on whether you’re a registered charity, you have paid staff, and how much you’re spending on election-related activities.


Canada Revenue Agency’s Regulations

Nonprofit organizations that are federally registered as charities must adhere to the Income Tax Act (ITA) regulations, as interpreted and applied by the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA). Recent Amendments to the ITA now allow registered charities to engage in unlimited public policy dialogue and development activities (PPDDAs), so long as these activities are: 

  • related to and support the organization’s stated charitable purpose(s) and,

  • nonpartisan (this includes a ban on both direct and indirect partisanship).

PPDDAs generally involve seeking to influence the laws, policies or decisions of a government, whether in Canada or a foreign country. In light of the new changes, charities must still be created and operated exclusively for charitable purposes. 

Nonprofit organizations that are NOT registered charities do not need to adhere to these regulations.

The following information comes from the latest draft of the CRA’s guidelines for charities engaging in PPDDAs:

A charity can publicly agree or disagree with a decision or position of government, but cannot directly or indirectly support or oppose any political party or candidate for public office. Thus, a charity’s communications should focus on policy issues and should not refer to any candidate or political party. 

Direct and Indirect Partisanship

To avoid partisan engagement during your advocacy efforts, consider the following list of Do’s and Don’ts.


  • focus on the charitable purposes that your PPDDAs are meant to achieve.

  • keep records that demonstrate your primary consideration in carrying on PPDDAs is to further your charitable purpose and provide a public benefit.[1]

  • review legal requirements of other legislation such as Alberta Elections Act and Lobbying Act.

  • give all political candidates and parties an equal opportunity to present their views and answer questions.


  • focus on, promote or oppose a political candidate or party publicly or internally.

  • instruct or influence constituents to vote for a specific candidate or party.

  • work with or coordinate with campaigns, political candidates or parties.

  • transfer resources (ex. financial, human, or physical resources) to support or oppose a political party or candidate directly or through a third party, or allow a political party or candidate to use your charities resources without compensation.

  • refer to or identify a political party or candidate when supporting or opposing a law, policy, or decision of government.

Nonpartisanship does not mean non-participation. There are many ways that registered charities can engage in nonpartisan election-related activities. Furthermore, the ability to engage in nonpartisan advocacy can be viewed as a strength for organizations, as it can work to:

  • Create an environment of respect for the diversity of political opinions among staff, volunteers and people who your charity serves.

  • Give you access to diverse community leaders and funding sources.

  • Reaffirm charities’ position as a trusted source that can engage with and give voice to underserved populations and topics, beyond party lines.[2]

As Canadian citizens, staff and volunteers have a right to participate in the democratic process. This means, as individuals, they are not bound to nonpartisan dialogue – as long as they are not acting in their official capacities as representatives of a registered charity. Check with your organization regarding any conflict of interest policies that may exist.

For more information on CRA’s draft guidance documents and examples of direct and indirect partisanship please click here.

Please click here for Explanatory Notes Relating to the Income Tax Act Legislation.

Lobbying in Alberta

Lobbying is a legitimate activity in a free and democratic society. Lobbyist regulations across different levels of government are meant to balance free and open access to government with public transparency as to who is accessing and seeking to influence government.

The Alberta Government defines lobbying as communication with a public office holder in an attempt to influence matters relating to:

  • Legislation (including legislative proposals, bills, resolutions, regulations and orders in council).

  • Programs, policies, directives, or guidelines.

  • The awarding of any grant or financial benefit.

  • Decisions by the Executive Council to transfer assets from the Crown or to privatize goods and services.

  • In the case of consultant lobbyists, arranging a meeting between a public office holder and any other individual; or communicating with a public office holder in an attempt to influence the awarding of a contract. 

CCVO, along with some of our peer organizations, was previously involved in consulting with the Alberta government regarding the exemption of “public benefit nonprofits” from having to register as lobbyists. As such, nonprofits are exempt from the Alberta Lobbyists Act and therefore are not required to register as lobbyists, except for:

  • Nonprofits that are constituted to serve management, union or professional interests.

  • Nonprofits that have a majority of members that are profit-seeking enterprises or representatives of profit-seeking enterprises.

By definition, lobbyists are paid staff. Nonprofits that fall under the exceptions above must only register if they have reached the 50-hour annual lobbyist threshold, which includes both time spent lobbying and time spent preparing for lobbying.

For more information on the different types of lobbyists and exemptions, please click here.

Third-Party Advertising 

Third-party advertising rules are meant to ensure that the public is aware of who is placing and paying for political and election advertising at different levels of government. “Election Advertising” refers to advertising that promotes or opposes a registered party or a registered candidate during an election advertising period.[3] According to Elections Alberta, issue-based advertising that is not directly promoting or opposing a political candidate or party, can be included in third-party election advertising. This means if your nonprofit spends money on paid advertising that advocates for or against an issue that a registered party or candidate is merely associated with, you may need to register as a third-party advertiser.

A registered charity is not eligible to register as a third-party advertiser through Elections Alberta. However, nonprofits that are not registered charities are required to register as third-party advertisers if they have incurred or plan to incur expenses of at least $1,000 for election advertising, or they have accepted, or plan to accept, at least $1,000 in election advertising contributions. There are no advertising donation limits but there is an advertising expense limit of $150,000 during the election advertising period.  

Please click here to view the full Elections Alberta Third-Party Advertiser Guide.  Also, find a helpful Third-Party Advertiser Infographic from Elections Alberta here.

Original post updated January 2019


[1] Government of Canada. (2019). Guidelines for registering a charity: Meeting the public benefit test.

[2] Nonprofit Vote. (2018). Nonprofits, Voting & Elections: A Guide to Nonpartisan Voter Engagement. 

[3] The election advertising period starts on December 1st, or from the issue of a writ for the election, until the end of polling day.