Upcoming Election – things to think about as a charity

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Posted on 17 July 2017

As you are probably aware, New Zealand faces a general election on 23 September 2017.

Charities have a key role in civil society, including in election years, but it is important they understand their obligations. In an election year, it is particularly important for charities to understand what is acceptable, and what may be an issue under charities law.

I have previously explained how a charity can “advocate for causes (external link) ” and remain registered as a charity.

After recent decisions of the Charities Registration Board (see below), some charities may feel worried about speaking up about issues that are important to them. We want to make clear that charities can speak up and it’s important they do!

What they can’t do is directly support political parties or candidates. This means charities have to be careful not to associate their activities with a particular political party or candidate.

But there are lots of ways charities can speak up in election time without directly endorsing or supporting political parties. For example:

  • Ask a wide spectrum of political parties a number of questions that are important to your charitable purpose, and post the answers on their website.
  • Provide objective educational reports on current election issues and publish them.
  • Hold community hall meetings or debates where candidates across the political spectrum come and talk about their ideas.
  • Urge their members, and the general public, to consider a charitable purpose in making a decision on how to vote (e.g. use your vote to promote education).
  • Survey a geographic area and publish the people in the area’s position on different issues.
  • Encourage people to vote and participate in democracy – promoting good citizenship is a charitable purpose, and promoting voting and participating in elections itself will be charitable.

In some cases from the information a charity provides it may become clear that one party is more favourable to a charitable purpose than another. This is ok – but the charity needs to be clear not to support or endorse the party.

The key for a charity is ensuring it continues to advance its charitable purpose. If a charity starts advocating a particular cause as a significant part of its activities, it should consider carefully whether this is charitable.

If this is an ancillary purpose – this would not usually be an issue. For example, if a church that runs weekly services and community programmes, decided to advocate in election year for a policy that related to its religion, this would not threaten its charitable status. This is because it would advance its purpose, and it is only a small part of its overall activities.

Although we’d expect charities to be careful about sharing specific posts from political parties, posting once in a while would not be enough to raise concerns (if the activity was closely linked with your underlying charitable purpose).

If you want more information, it is useful to read our resources (external link) on this subject and the following recent decisions by the Board:

If you are worried or confused, don’t hesitate to contact us. We're happy to talk you through our position and what your options are. You can also do this anonymously if you like.

You can also seek independent legal advice, and some Community Law Centres will offer charities support free of charge. 

Andrew Phillips profile

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