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Political activities and registration under the Charities Act
Updated May 2011
This information sheet is intended to provide guidance for registered charitable entities, but it may also be of use to organisations that are considering applying for registration as a charitable entity.
It has been developed for the New Zealand context, but it draws on guidance developed in other countries with similar laws.
Many charitable entities registered by Charities Services undertake political activities in order to achieve their charitable purposes. As long as the organisation's main purposes remain charitable, the use of political activities to achieve these purposes is unlikely to disqualify the organisation from registration.
Charities Services acknowledges the valuable contribution that charitable entities can make to public debates – for example, a charitable entity may be the only organisation to represent the needs of a group of disadvantaged people. In addition, it is clear that the input of charitable entities may be able to resolve recurring problems in their particular fields.
Charities Services understands that charitable entities may be more likely to undertake political activities at certain times. For example, entities may undertake more political activities in an election year or if Parliament is considering, or is about to consider, a piece of legislation which relates to the entity's operations.
Charities Services is only likely to question whether a charitable entity is continuing to meet registration requirements if its political activities have assumed a level of importance that appears to indicate that they have become independent purposes in themselves. In these circumstances, Charities Services will inform the charitable entity that no longer appears to have exclusively charitable purposes.
The entity will have an opportunity to respond and Charities Services will consider this response before it making a final decision on the entity's ability to remain on the Charity Register.
(For more information, see our information sheet Political purposes - General guidance.)
Issues for the charitable entity to take into account
As with any other activity that it may undertake, when considering whether to get involved in political activities a charitable entity should be satisfied that:
- the activity is permitted by the charity's rules
- the activity complies with the general law and any other regulatory requirements.
- it is reasonably likely that benefits for the charitable entity and its beneficiaries will result from the activity
- the benefits of the activity justify any possible risks or costs.
If the charitable entity is in doubt about the legality or appropriateness of the proposed political activity, it should seek advice from an independent professional who is experienced in this area.
Charitable entities also need to make a judgement about the type and amount of political activity that is appropriate to support their charitable purposes. Factors to take into account include:
- the purposes set out in the charitable entity's rules
- the nature of the political activity (for example: making a submission to a select committee, circulating a petition, or organising a protest rally)
- the proportion of the charitable entity's total resources that will be used on the activity
- the length of time involved in undertaking the activity.
The officers of the charitable entity may wish to keep detailed records of decisions to apply resources to political activities so they can justify their actions to the entity's beneficiaries, its members and supporters, or any other parties if required.
To protect their reputation and to ensure the public continue to have confidence in them, charitable entities should ensure they remain politically neutral and entities should be open and transparent about any contact they have with political parties and their representatives.
Some practical examples
Listed below are some examples of political activities which are unlikely to affect charitable status and some examples of political activities which may affect charitable status.
These examples are provided for general guidance only and there may be some activities which are not included here.
Activities that are unlikely to affect charitable status
Undertaking the following activities is unlikely to adversely affect an entity's charitable status:
- supporting or opposing legislation directly related to the entity's charitable purpose
- promoting the need for new legislation directly related to the entity's charitable purpose
- ensuring members of Parliament, candidates for election, or council members are aware of the charitable entity and the benefits the entity provides for the public
- ensuring that individuals and organisations comply with current legislative and regulatory requirements
- organising a petition for presentation to central or local government where the subject of the petition is directly related to the entity's charitable purpose
- publicly commenting on the effect of a particular central or local government policy on the entity's ability to carry out its charitable purpose
- publishing the views of council members or members of Parliament, including how they have voted on particular issues where these are directly related to the entity's charitable purposes and where no particular representative or party is singled out
- allowing the entity's premises to be used by an individual or an organisation for a political meeting where this arrangement is provided on the same terms as any other user
- declining to allow the entity's premises to be used by an individual or an organisation for a political meeting if that individual or organisation has views which conflict with the charitable entity
- campaigning aimed at changing the policies or behaviour of a private organisation (for example a trading company).
- promoting a particular course of action to in order to achieve a proven benefit for the public (for example, promoting a healthy lifestyle and exercise to reduce health problems in later life).
Activities that may adversely affect charitable status
Undertaking the following activities may adversely affect an entity's charitable status:
- supporting or opposing legislation not directly related to the entity's charitable purposes (for example making submissions on all legislation considered by Parliament)
- promoting the need for new legislation not directly related to the entity's charitable purposes
- participating in political activities as the only means of achieving a charitable purpose for a sustained period of time
- participating in political activities in the absence of any charitable purpose
- providing financial support, or support in kind, to a political party, candidate for election, or member of Parliament (for example including endorsing a particular candidate or political party in the entity's newsletter)
- encouraging the entity's members or supporters to undertake illegal activities in order to draw attention to its particular point of view
- promoting a particular point of view which does not contribute to an identifiable charitable purpose or a proven public benefit (for example advocating for land to be rezoned so that private individuals can operate businesses from the area).
For more, see our other information sheets