Being political and charitable
Posted on 6 October 2016
Can our charity campaign to raise the minimum wage? Is it ok to put a submission in on the Police Vetting Bill? Can our charity endorse a political party?
We know it can sometimes be challenging to know what’s accepted as charitable, especially when it comes to advocating for causes. We’ve worked with sector representatives to update the advocacy material on our website to help charities understand what is ok, and what is not.
In 2014, the Supreme Court of New Zealand delivered its first decision (external link) relating to charitable purpose. One of the important things it said is that political purposes can be charitable in some cases.
“Political” means different things to different people and because of that we’re moving away from using the word “political” in our communications. We now use the term “advocacy for causes” which is any time an organisation tries to persuade people to its views.
We thought it might be useful to answer some specific questions we have received on the issue of advocacy for causes. If you have other questions (or other things you’d like clarified in this blog), don’t hesitate to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What do we mean by advocacy for causes?
This can be in the form of opinion pieces, lobbying decision makers, submissions to Parliament, petitions or challenging the decisions of government or business in front of courts.
Some other activities that could be regarded as forms of advocacy may qualify because the organisation advances education. For example, a charity that does objective, unbiased research without having a pre-determined position, or provides advice in the area of the organisation’s expertise to decision makers, or helps individuals understand their legal rights or obligations.
Can a charity have a purpose that promotes a point of view?
A charity that advocates for causes or tries to persuade people to its views may still be charitable, but the reason why the charity is advocating (e.g. the relief of poverty), how their goals will be achieved through its policies (e.g. raising the minimum wage), and what they are doing (e.g. submissions, protests) all have to be similar to previously accepted charitable purposes.
The Supreme Court has said that it will be unusual for an organisation to be charitable that tries to persuade people to its views. This is because it’s difficult for the independent Charities Registration Board or courts to decide whether the policies an organisation supports benefit the public, especially when they can often have significant consequences. (e.g. a policy of raising the minimum wage could result in higher unemployment, and possibly more poverty).
This isn’t to say that promoting a point of view or advocating for a cause will never be charitable. For example, the Board found advocating for restoring the Christchurch Cathedral was charitable, because the restoration itself could be seen to be similar to a previously accepted charitable purpose - the restoration of buildings with recognised heritage status has long been established as charitable, and the Christchurch Cathedral has recognised heritage status.
You can also engage in a small amount of advocacy for a cause that’s connected to your charitable purpose. This is what we call “ancillary” (e.g. if you signed a “raise the minimum wage petition” on behalf of the Food Bank you operate, this wouldn’t be an issue; we’d see that as connected to your purpose and a small part of your work).
Can a charity support a political party?
Some political parties may advocate for policies that align with a charity’s purposes. Charities may support the policies of a political party where they’re consistent with its charitable purposes; however, they have to ensure that they’re independent and don’t provide support or funding to a political party.
For example: charities often ask questions of political parties, and publish their answers on their website. Identifying the answers which most align with the charity’s purpose wouldn’t disqualify the charity from registration.
Where to find more information
For more information on all of these issues, see our updated guidance on advocacy for causes, or get in touch and ask us. We have also published the most recent decision of the Charities Registration Board on the subject; the Society for the Protection of Auckland Harbours.
We understand this is a complicated issue, and are more than happy to provide guidance on whether your proposed activities would mean you may qualify to be a registered charity, or whether doing these activities may cause your charity to be reviewed.
We’ll work closely with any applicant or registered charity we’re reviewing to help them get registered, or remain registered, where we think they can meet the requirements of registration.