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How to engage in Federal Election 2021: rules for charities & nonprofits

How to engage in Federal Election 2021: rules for charities & nonprofits

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Election campaigns are a great time to engage in public conversation on all manner of issues. On September 20th, the next government will receive a mandate from voters, and our sector in particular is well-positioned to promote the interests of communities to both the public and to those who will soon be tasked with approving and implementing public policy for the critical few years to come. 

In recent years, some of the rules of engagement for charities and nonprofits during federal election campaign periods have changed. Here, we outline what is important to know. Elections Canada has also produced a comprehensive Questions and Answers document providing an overview of Third Party regulations and obligations (for more detail, see their June 2021 Handbook).

Charities still cannot engage in partisan activity

Under the Income Tax Act, charities are not permitted to engage in either direct or indirect partisan activity (see here for some examples of each), and the same goes for election season. However, the nature of electoral campaigns can make this challenging to discern. 

Some tips:

  • Do not express support for a candidate, political party, or party leader; including encouraging your community to vote for or against;
  • No door-to-door canvassing or get-out-the-vote activities; 
  • Election surveys conducted for the purpose of supporting a candidate or party are off-side;
  • Do not use your charity’s resources to support a candidate or party, including donations or tickets to fundraisers;
  • When hosting events or debates with candidates, ensure all parties are invited.

The above rules on partisanship do not apply to nonprofits. 

When do you need to register as a Third Party Advertiser?

Elections Canada has rules on what they call Third Party Advertising, and these apply to both nonprofits and charities. If your organization plans to promote public policy positions between now and election day, it is important to know under what conditions you’ll need to register - and to consider this as soon as possible. 

Nonprofits and charities do not need to register in order to continue with their standard paid advertising that is unrelated to the election. For example, the promotion of fundraising appeals is considered unregulated activity, as is advertising your services or upcoming events. 

Advocacy-related communications such as news releases, website pages, or website content and the free use of a social media account or free video placement on a site such as YouTube, also do not trigger the need to register. Similarly, all candidates debates or other events that discuss policy issues are not regulated activities so long as they aren’t partisan. 

All organizations need to register if they take a position on a public policy issue that is known to be associated with a candidate or political party (even if they are not mentioned), and spend more than $500 on issue advertising. As a general rule, advertising would have a placement cost (such as sponsored or boosted content). It can include promoted social media posts, radio or television spots, paid newspaper placements, flyers or other print materials. If a candidate or party becomes associated with the topic of your issue advertising activity at some point during the campaign, you then need to register (again, refer to Elections Canada’s June 2021 Handbook for more detail and examples). 

Your nonprofit or charity needs to register if it conducts an election survey of the public on a policy issue with which a candidate or party is associated, and if the results are used to consider whether to engage in regulated activities. 

Nonprofits need to register if they engage in partisan activities during the campaign period (of course, this does not apply to charities as they can never be partisan). Demonstrations, rallies, phone trees and communications expressing direct support for or opposition to candidates or parties would qualify as partisan activity.

If Third Party Advertising conditions are met by your organization (again: if your nonprofit is planning partisan activity; if your nonprofit or charity plans to pay more than $500 for advertising of policy positions associated with a candidate or party), the requirement to register as a Third Party Advertiser comes into effect once the work begins, and as early as the day the writ drops. Be aware: registration will require a resolution from your board, and there are spending limits as well as reporting requirements. 

If you plan to carry out any of the regulated activities described above, look into what it will take to register and comply: Tools for Third Parties.

Finally, “political activities” are a thing of the past

The idea that charities cannot do advocacy is a persistent myth that limits the ability of many organizations to advance sustainable change in service of their causes. A few years ago, the Income Tax Act changed to remove the concept of political activities by registered charities. As long as the public policy work you do is in furtherance of your charitable purpose as accepted by the Canada Revenue Agency, there are no longer government-imposed limits on how much of this work you do (unless the work undertaken is during an election period and trigger Third Party Advertising regulation, as described above).

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