This sentence made me spit coffee this morning: "First, it should be understood that the solutions to many of the problems society faces do not need never-ending research and the criticism-free public education that the CRA permits. They cry out for intelligent advocacy and new law."
It comes from a piece in the Montreal Gazette by Garfield Mahood and Brian Iler.
I get where the authors are coming from and agree with the concerns behind the article, but I wish an editor had taken a pencil to that line. There is also an important point the article overlooks entirely.
- There are three types of corporate bodies - government, for-profit, and non-profit.
- A non-profit organization is one established for any purpose but doesn't distribute profits to its board members.
- Generally, a non-profit organization serves the specific interests of its members (interests that can be as zany, altruistic, or offensive as members wish).
- In Canada, a non-profit can ask the federal government for special status as a charity.
- Charitable status allows the organization to issue tax receipts to its donors but restricts the organization's activities to a narrow band of "public interest" activities. It prohibits the organization from partisan politics (supporting parties or candidates) and limits the organization's involvement in political activities (influencing government decision-making outside of formal processes).
- In the last three years, the federal government has ramped up audits of charitable organizations. At times, they suggest that organizations are using their tax-exempt status inappropriately. Critics say that the crackdown is actually an effort to mute criticisms of government policy, something that is problematic in a democracy.
So why does this sentence bother me so much?
Because I LOVE "never-ending research." Good advocacy is often based on research (and I'm sure the authors of the article would agree). You absolutely cannot have intelligent advocacy without a foundation in research. And good research never ends, because new ideas and discoveries lead to more questions, discoveries, and ideas. Good researchers always stand on the shoulder of giants.
The thing is, there is no one "right" answer to most thorny policy questions. There is information and there are perspectives and there are opinions (some expert, some not). All are relevant. I'd like to see more groups who are able to think about the big picture, not be bound by the issues of the day, allow the quest for truth and wisdom to guide their work.
Let's not dismiss the need for research in the quest for more effective voices in advocacy. Even during policy crises and times when urgent decision-making is required, research and thoughtful expertise developed over years of study can be essential to wise action.
One more thing
The article implies that the organizations being targeted by CRA are held back from their full potential by the restrictions on charities. From a logical perspective, it should also allow for the possibility that the work some charities are doing is absolutely fine, but that the application or interpretation of the rules has changed. Perhaps it isn't just about the charities' activities. Perhaps it is about a new government view on the role charities and nonprofits play in society. If so, this view should be transparently articulated and should withstand public scrutiny.
This creates the impression that political activity is the most effective strategy for every charity (which I don't think was the intent) and that all charities secretly yearn for more political freedom. That's not the case. Political action is one approach of many and it is appropriate for some, but not for others, and not always at all times.
Examining the approach non-profits take is important, and I love the article appeared. I hope there is a follow up that looks at the "why" behind the situation. Are charities actually becoming more political? Has the definition/ interpretation of what is political changed? Are too many non-profits applying for charitable status without thinking through their organization's strategy and model?