09 October 2015

#69 Can’t Prevent Harm

There’s an interesting behind-the-scenes war going on against progressive organizations in Canada. I mean “interesting” in the sense of the ancient Chinese curse “May you live in interesting times”. The war is all about the portion of an organization’s activities that are characterized as “advocacy”.

I am talking only about organizations that are registered charities, permitted to issue tax receipts for donations. This status is vital to many organizations in a time when we have so many governments — including, not surprisingly, our outgoing federal government — backing away from services that help the poor and the sick, or that address many other social issues. When the government doesn’t fulfill its role in these matters, individuals are called upon to give to registered charities to step in and do the work that needs to be done.

Advocacy is often seen as a necessary part of addressing social ills, as it is generally directed at changing the policies or other practices that are causing the social ill. As you might expect, the outgoing government doesn’t see it that way. There is a limit about 10% of a charity’s revenues that can be used to advocacy, and even that must be justified. I have filled out charitable declarations in the past (thankfully, my current organization decided at its founding that it would not be a registered charity in order to be free to take political actions) and I can attest to the increasing detail that is to be found in these sections of the annual declaration. Did you write to a sitting politician? Did you issue public statements? It goes on and on.

Oddly, and surely by luck of the draw, most of the organizations facing detailed audits of their activities are those that are at odds with the policies of the current government. That is one stroke of bad luck for them, and good luck for small-c conservative think tanks like the Fraser Institute, which is somehow fulfilling a charitable purpose in making policy recommendations. Hmmm.

The height of ridiculousness, however, came to light in the case of Oxfam Canada. It seems that the Canada Revenue Agency objected to the goal of “preventing poverty” that was listed among the organization’s charitable purposes. In their reasoning, working with people who are not yet poor is not charitable; you have to wait until they are poor and then try to help them.

Curative interventions or ongoing handouts have never been the best way to address social problems. If you can do something to help people avoid problems, you have done something more durable in its positive impact on society. Revenue Canada, however, has all the power, and Oxfam was compelled to bend or lose its capacity to solicit donations from the public to support its work.

That’s one way to head off positive social change, I guess.

Further reading here

Don’t teach me to swim
saving me from drowning is
the charity’s role

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