Opinions and Current Issues Blog

Saba Ahmad is a Litigator working on environmental, administrative and commercial matters in Toronto. Learn more at www.sabaahmad.com

Thoughts on Activism

Activists need encouragement. Not all social action needs encouragement to an equal degree.  Activists that pursue contentious causes have a tougher road than philanthropists who pursue strictly charitable work.

Governments recognize a difference between philanthropy and activism.  In both Canada and the U.S., tax law encourages philanthropic work but the incentives do not extend to political activism: 

  • In the U.S., tax write-offs are available to registered 501(c)(3) non-profit organizations.  Organizations that engage in political campaigning risk losing tax-exempt status. 
  • In Canada, the rule is much stricter.  Charities can not explicitly communicate or call to political action, or communicate to the public opposition to a law or decision of government.  And only registered charities can issue tax receipts.  Canada Revenue Agency’s policy statement  (Reference Number CPS-022) about permitted political activities of charitable organizations can be viewed here: http://goo.gl/rfECC

As a result of Canada’s policy, charities, by and large, are organizations that help the poor or the sick. Fewer environmental groups qualify as charities because once an organization crosses the line of trying to change political decisions, the activity is “controversial” and the organization may not qualify to give tax receipts.

These restraints on political speech by charities affect the work charities choose to do.  Charitable works are skewed in the direction of non-political activities.  It is “safer” to advocate for planting trees than it is to oppose cutting trees down. 

Another by-product of Canada’s policy is that people who would contribute to activist causes instead contribute to charitable causes.  People who oppose certain construction developments may instead choose to plant trees or help the poor or alleviate medical suffering.

Of course we must celebrate that work.  In North America, governments do a lot of that work and it makes sense for the government to promote and encourage philanthropic efforts by volunteer citizens. 

But activists also need encouragement.  Advocating for bicycle lanes is no less altruistic than promoting literacy.  At one time, seeking public health care, or racial or gender equality was seen as political.  Today, advocating sustainable development is viewed as political, particularly when criticizing a government project’s environmental implications.  

Many social advancements could not have been had without the willingness of people to challenge the status quo – and to risk antagonizing people.  Risk-averse people already tend to prefer philanthropic work to political activism.  Canada’s tax policy works to discourage the rest of us to from challenging the government. 

I say, resist the tax and social structures in place to encourage some kinds of work over others and volunteer and donate with your conscience. 


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This entry was posted on December 6, 2012 by in Uncategorized.

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