by Maria Lahiffe
Your organization does important work, for a group of people who really need it. You need to get the word out about your work, to bring in potential donors and volunteers, and to educate the public about the issue you address. You need to be careful, though, about how you do that – especially during an election.
Disclaimer: While Volunteer Ottawa has made every effort to provide accurate information, we are not qualified to give legal advice. For legal advice, please consult a qualified lawyer.
There used to be a limit on how much activity charities could engage in, with respect to public policy dialogue and development activities. This limitation has been lifted, but it’s still not open season. The activities need to further your charitable purposes, and you are still completely prohibited from engaging in partisan activites.
Public policy dialogue and development activities (PPDDAs) can include research, leading discussions, organizing conferences, informing the public, and attempting to shape public opinion. These activities can also include efforts to influence the laws, policies, and decisions of a government.
The definition of charitable purposes remains unchanged. In fact, there is not a specific definition under law, but rather a working definition which has evolved through 400 years of past court decisions.  Revenue Canada uses the following definition of a stated charitable purpose: 
Partisan activities include supporting or opposing, directly or indirectly, any political party or candidate for public office. This is a big grey area, where it is possible to court a lot of trouble if you are not careful. For example, if your charity provides evidence-based services, but a government institutes policies which are not based on peer-reviewed evidence, then some of your normal communications may have the potential to be construed as partisan.
If you pay to get your word out, then you are advertising. If your information includes messages which promote or oppose a party or a candidate, or that takes a position on an issue associated with a party or candidate, then it is considered election advertising.  As discussed above, this means that your honest promotion of your organization’s mission may potentially be construed as political, if a party or candidate is also associated with some aspect of that mission. For example, if you work to alleviate some of the issues related to homelessness, and a party or candidate also has a position on homelessness, then your messaging could be considered political. Political messaging comes under election advertising laws, which changed in late 2018.
Advertising includes: 
Advertising (under Elections Canada rules) does not include the following.  However, keep in mind that any of the following may be construed as partisan, depending on what you say, which means you would need to be careful about PPDDAs, as discussed above.
As an independent organization, your NFP would be considered a third party. It is essential to register with Elections Canada immediately after incurring $500 in election advertising expenses. Expenses include all of the costs associated with producing and distributing election advertising. Production costs can include labour, materials, and overhead, while distribution cost is the cost of getting the message to recipients.
There are three different periods which relate to elections, and, by extension, to election advertising. Communication rules are different for each period.
Elections are sacrosanct. As we have seen in recent years, misinformation can have a terrible effect on election outcomes, which in turn can erode civil society itself. The government has tightened rules in order to help protect Canadians from being inundated with partisan messaging at a time when they really need to make a clear-headed decision.
Also, there are hefty fines involved for non-compliance. Following are some examples. The maximum fine for each one of these things on the list is $50,000, which means a total maximum fine could potentially be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
You’re not alone. Come to our upcoming workshop where Adam Apowitzer and Lex Klombies will help you navigate these murky waters. Get your message out, and keep your organization safe from hefty fines.
Click here to register Tuesday, June 25, 2019. 9:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m.
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