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Foreign Charities and the Changing Landscape of CRA Charity Audits

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There has been a flurry of recent scrutiny and activity in the areas of foreign and domestic charities – few foreign charities remain on the list of qualified donees since the changes to the definition of “qualified donee” in the Income Tax Act, and the CRA’s Charities Directorate appears to have taken a keen interest in the political activities of certain domestic charities.

Donors and charities would be prudent to monitor these developments and obtain professional advice where necessary.

Foreign Charities

Before 2013, a “qualified donee” under the Income Tax Act automatically included those foreign charities to which the Canadian government had made a gift in previous years (within a certain timeframe). However, that changed when the definition of qualified donee was amended to include only those foreign organizations that have applied to the CRA for registration, which would be granted if the foreign charity received a gift from the Canadian government and the CRA was satisfied that the foreign charity is carrying on relief activities in response to a disaster, providing urgent humanitarian aid, or carrying on activities in the national interest of Canada.

The CRA website lists only one foreign charity that has been registered – The Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation. The CRA website also lists those organizations that had received gifts from the Canadian government before the changes to the definition of qualified donee.

Political Activities and CRA Charity Audits

The foreign charity changes occurred around the same time the CRA Charities Directorate increased its “political activities compliance efforts”. In general, charities are restricted from engaging in or supporting political activities unless those activities are wholly subordinate to their other charitable purposes. The CRA’s administrative position is that a charity must devote less than 10% of its total resources in a year to political activities.

The CRA focus on charities and political activities sparked many media articles raising the issue of whether the CRA’s auditing practices were themselves inherently politically-motivated (see articles here, herehere and here).

Cathy Hawara, the Director General of the CRA’s Charities Directorate, has denied accusations that these charity audits were politically motivated (see Ms. Hawara’s speech to the CBA Charity Law Symposium on May 23, 3014). The CRA also publicly stated that recent audits of charities were intended to focus on all types of charities and not only those with certain political inclinations. Further, the CRA has recently published a Charities Program Update which (among other things) aims to increase the transparency of its audits in the charitable sector and provide guidance as to how audits for charities involved in political activities are conducted. However, at the same time, the CRA has publicly stated that it will not divulge the guidelines for political activity audits of charities.

The controversy surrounding the CRA’s audit selection process persists. On September 15, 2014 a letter signed by 400 academics was released, demanding that the CRA halt its audit of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (“CCPA”). This letter was sent in response to the release of a CRA document obtained by the CCPA pursuant to an access to information request wherein the CRA states the reason for audit as follows: “A review of the Organization’s website… suggests that the Organization may be carrying out prohibited partisan political activities, and that much of its research/educational materials may be biased/one-sided.”

In their letter, the academics counter that “critical policy analysis does not equate with political activism, nor is it ‘biased’ or ‘one-sided’.” They argue that there is legitimate concern that charities are now self-censoring to avoid aggravating auditors and this audit activity will stifle sound, effective, and legitimate research.

On October 20, 2014, the Broadbent Institute released a report that adds further momentum to the speculative argument that the CRA is less interested in compliance and more interested in politically-motivated retribution against government critics (see also here).

The report highlights 10 “right-leaning” charities that have apparently escaped CRA audit, despite making public statements that may indicate that such charities are carrying out political activities without reporting them. The report concludes by suggesting that an impartial inquiry into the CRA’s audits of charitable organizations is the only way to come to a clear conclusion on this controversial matter.

The message is clear. The CRA is increasing scrutiny on political activities in the charitable sector. Charities should take active steps to ensure that they are compliant with applicable legislation.

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