Advocacy for causes
In a modern democracy, many organisations want their voice to be heard on decisions and issues that are important to them and the people that they represent.
Some of these organisations are set up with the aim of persuading people about their ideas or views on issues, or to advocate for causes. This is what is meant by the term “political purposes,” which forms part of a decision of the Supreme Court of New Zealand.
Charities Services can only register these organisations where:
They advance a public benefit in a similar way to a previously accepted charitable purpose; or
The political purposes are ancillary to the organisation’s main purposes. This is when it is a small part of what the organisation does overall, and it is closely linked to carrying out their charitable purpose.
To advance a public benefit, purposes to advocate for a cause or persuade people to ideas or views must meet a specific three part test, which is discussed below.
Assessing whether an organisation which advocates for a cause or persuades people to its ideas or views is charitable is often a complex question. We recommend if you are a charity, or are planning to apply to be a charity, and are involved in advocacy, contact us and we can provide case by case guidance.
Other types of advocacy
Many organisations carry out other types of advocacy that do not involve advocating for a cause or persuading people to their ideas or views.
Registered charities carry out these types of advocacy in a number of ways including:
Sharing objective research on the charity’s views, that is not pre-determined and that is balanced in approach – for example a research institute which communicates the results of the recommendations of its research to a government agency.
Providing information on a charity’s area of expertise to a government agency at its request, to assist in the formation of policy or laws - for example a women’s refuge providing information on domestic violence to a government agency at its request to assist in developing policy to protect at risk individuals.
Speaking on behalf of individuals who do not have the means to speak for themselves – for example helping individuals to access benefits and other financial assistance from WINZ.
Where an organisation has a significant focus on persuading people to their ideas or views on issues, or to advocate for causes, the organisation must be able to show how it advances a public benefit similar to other previously recognised charitable purposes.
Charities Services does not seek to closely match purposes with those that have been previously accepted as charitable, however they must be sufficiently similar to reflect the previously accepted public benefit which has already been established in court decisions.
Key point: similar purposes do not mean identical purposes
Promoting community amenities, such as roads and walkways, has long been accepted as charitable. This is because they provide a service for everyone, not just individuals in the community, and helps connect people. This has been extended to the provision of internet in communities, as the internet is available to everyone and also helps connect people.
If your organisation wants to carry out new or innovative purposes, and is considering applying for registration, we recommend that you talk to us first. We are happy to discuss any questions that you have and let you know whether we consider what you are intending to do will be charitable.
Assessing public benefit - three part test
In assessing an organisation’s eligibility for registration, Charities Services must follow decisions made by the courts about charities law. The Supreme Court is New Zealand’s highest court.
WHY? - What end goal does the organisation want to achieve?
HOW? - How does the organisation intend to achieve its end goal?
WHAT? – What particular methods will the organisation use to achieve its end goal?
To be considered to be charitable, an organisation must meet each part of the three part test of the Supreme Court. This means that each part of the test must advance a public benefit in a similar way to a previously accepted charitable purpose.
The first part of the test is considering why the organisation is doing what it is doing or what end goal it wants to achieve. An end goal will be charitable if it is similar to other previously recognised charitable purposes.
Charitable end goals might include things like the protection of the environment, the promotion of human rights, the relief of poverty or the promotion of health.
The second part of the test is considering how the organisation intends to achieve its end goal. To qualify for registration as a charity, how the organisation intends to achieve its end goal must also be charitable. Charities Services will look at whether this is similar to previously recognised charitable purposes. Most organisations that have a non-ancillary purpose to advocate for a cause or persuade people to their views will not qualify for registration, as they are set up to promote their point of view on an issue over other points of view. The courts cannot usually say that promoting one view over another view is for the public benefit.
Key point: how the organisation achieves its charitable end goal is identical to other previously accepted charitable purposes, then the organisation will likely be charitable.
An organisation has been established to achieve the charitable end goal of advancing education through improving library services. To achieve this end goal, the organisation advocates for the government to adopt the recommendations of research it has commissioned into libraries.
The research is on a genuine topic of study, and will advance knowledge in the area being researched. The research is also objective and well balanced, and has not been commissioned with a result in mind. In this example, as the research is charitable for the advancement of education, and advances a public benefit, the advocacy is likely to be considered charitable.
Key point: how the organisation achieves its charitable end goal is similar to other previously accepted charitable purposes, then the organisation will likely be charitable.
An organisation has been established to achieve the charitable end goal of relieving poverty in a deprived region in New Zealand. To achieve this end goal, the organisation wants its local council to amend its district plan and regulations so more people can be assisted into housing (including home ownership) who are in poverty, and have no reasonable alternatives to meet their housing needs.
The provision of home ownership can be charitable, however a key consideration is (1) whether there are no alternative options available – such as rental housing or commuting and (2) whether any private benefits are provided to someone in charitable need; or (3) are ancillary to a charitable purpose. In this case, if we assessed that the people to be assisted are in charitable need, and do not have reasonable options such as rental housing, advocating for housing (including home ownership) would be likely to be considered charitable.
For more information on social housing and home ownership see: The Board’s decision to decline Queenstown Lakes Community Housing Trust and the High Court decision relating to this Trust.
Key point: if the public benefit of a view cannot be shown clearly, advancing that view will not be charitable.
An organisation has been set up to achieve the end goal of preventing animal suffering. An end goal of preventing animal suffering is charitable, because encouraging kind feelings towards animals leads to moral improvement of humans. To achieve this end goal, the organisation is seeking to ban all animal testing.
However, animal testing helps human health by preventing humans being hurt by medications and other substances. It is not possible to decide whether there is a public benefit in preventing animal testing, because it could result in more humans being hurt. Therefore, advocating to ban all animal testing is unlikely to be considered to be charitable.
Key point: the courts cannot usually say that promoting one view over another view is for the public benefit.
An organisation has been set up to achieve the end goal of protecting unborn children from abortion. To achieve this end goal, the organisation promotes a point of view that there should be no changes in law regarding abortion.
Abortion is a complex issue in New Zealand society. There are a wide range of philosophical, moral and ethical viewpoints. It will be difficult for the organisation to show a public benefit in promoting its views. This is because the courts cannot usually say that promoting one view over another view is for the public benefit.
The final part of the test is considering the particular methods an organisation will use to achieve its own goals.
This could include research, submissions, or encouraging public debate. All these methods are likely to be considered charitable, as the focus is on participating in a democratic process.
There are certain methods which the courts have said are not charitable. These include carrying out activities which are illegal, or directly supporting political parties.
However, supporting a particular policy of a political party is likely to be charitable, if the organisation can clearly explain how it is linked to their charitable purpose(s), and the support does not extend to general support of the political party or candidate in question.
Key point: Charities can work with political parties to educate the public on which party supports their charitable aims.
Before an election, an organisation that plants trees asks all the political parties for their tree policies. They then publish the results of the enquiry on their website. If one party supports trees more than others, this may mean that the organisation favours one political party over another, but it is likely to be acceptable if the organisation does not actively campaign for the political party.
Key point: Charities should have clear policies in place around the actions of volunteers and members
Volunteers of a charity have engaged in an illegal protest activity which the charity has not authorised or condoned. This is unlikely to affect registration if the charity has processes in place to prevent this from happening again in the future.
However, if a charity actively supports a political party, or intentionally encourages illegal activities, this may prevent its registration.
A charity can have a non-charitable advocacy purpose if it is ancillary to its charitable purpose. An ancillary purpose means it is secondary, subordinate or incidental to a charitable purpose and is not an independent purpose.
To be considered ancillary, the purpose must be:
A small proportion of what the organisation does overall.
Charities Services will consider what the organisation’s current focus is, and whether this focus is likely to change in the future. This will include looking at how much time (volunteer and paid) and funds the organisation spends on its non-charitable purpose in comparison to its charitable purpose(s).
- Closely linked to carrying out the organisation’s charitable purposes.
Charities Services will usually ask the organisation for more information to determine whether the non-charitable purpose will directly or indirectly help the organisation to achieve its charitable purpose(s).
If a church advocates against changing the law on a moral issue, where it is a small part of what they do as a whole, and it is related to their charitable purpose of advancing religion, this is unlikely to threaten their eligibility for registration.
If a food bank which relieved poverty in the community by providing food decided to engage in an extensive campaign to raise the minimum wage, it would no longer qualify for registration if this became the organisation’s focus.
For more information
Deciding if an organisation which advocates for causes or persuades people to its ideas or views is charitable is often complex. We recommend you talk to us if your organisation is considering registration or is a registered charity considering being involved in advocacy. We are happy to discuss your organisation’s stated purposes (set out in its rules document) and activities with you and any questions or concerns you have.
We have also published a blog on this subject:
You may also find reading the following decisions useful:
- The Charities Registration Board decision of Kiwis Against Seabed Mining (to decline) (external link)
- The Charities Registration Board decision of Society for the Protection of Auckland Harbours (to decline)
- The Charities Registration Board decision of Restore Christchurch Cathedral Incorporated (to register)