Rules of Engagement for Nonprofit Advocacy
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 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 the new year. 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:
Canada Revenue Agency’s Regulations
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 regulations, as interpreted and applied by the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA). These regulations:
define acceptable forms of political activity for charities, and
limit the amount of resources that can be devoted to political activity to 10-20%.
As such, if your organization is a charity, you must keep detailed records of the number of hours and expenditures that are spent on political activity. You will be expected to detail your political activities when you file your annual Registered Charity Information Return (Form T3010). For a full discussion on CRA’s regulations of charities involved in public policy advocacy, please see our resource on Influencing Public Policy.
CCVO, along with other organizations, has been engaged with the federal government in amending the Income Tax Act to allow a charity to carry out unlimited nonpartisan “public policy dialogue and development activities” in support of its charitable purposes. We will be sharing updated information on the administration of the new rules once they are released by CRA. The proposed changes have not yet been passed and current regulations continue to apply until further notice.
Regardless of the outcome on proposed legislative changes, charities must always ensure that public policy advocacy activities are both:
related to and support the organization’s charitable purpose, and
nonpartisan (this includes a ban on both direct and indirect partisanship).
Direct partisanship is relatively easier to define and interpret. To help guide your understanding, below is a list of examples of things to avoid in your advocacy efforts.
focus on, promote or oppose a political candidate or party.
instruct or influence constituents to vote for a specific candidate or party.
work with or coordinate with campaigns, candidates or parties.
compare candidates’ positions to your charity’s positions.
Indirect partisanship is more contextual and can be difficult to interpret. Below are questions to consider in determining if your efforts can be viewed as indirect partisanship, particularly during an election period:
Does the timing of your commentary on an issue regularly coincide with a public statement from a political candidate or party?
Does your messaging about an issue reference voting?
Does your messaging reference the names of political candidates or parties?
Have you engaged in the issue for which you are advocating for or against, outside of an election period? (If it is incorporated in your regular activities outside of election period, it is less likely to be viewed as partisan.)
Are you weighing in on a highly divisive issue?
Nonpartisanship does not mean non-participation. There are many ways that registered charities can engage in nonpartisan election-related activities, which will be discussed in upcoming Election Toolkit posts from CCVO. 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 voice that can engage with and give voice to underserved populations and topics, beyond party lines.
As Canadian citizens, staff and volunteers have a right to participate in the democratic process. This means, as citizens, 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.
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.
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. 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.
 The percentage amount that a charity can devote to political activities depends on its annual income:
An annual income of $200,000 or more: 10% of resources
Between $100,000 to $200,000: 12% of resources
Between $50,000 to $100,000: 15% of resources
Below $50,000: 20% of resources
 The election advertising period starts on December 1st, or from the issue of a writ for the election, until the end of polling day.