Editorial: Charities must be just that - so let's have clarity

Family First, well known for promoting its views on a number of social issues, thinks it is a charity. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Family First, well known for promoting its views on a number of social issues, thinks it is a charity. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Charity has a plain meaning to most people. It means an act of assistance for others, performed without pay or an expectation of reward. Governments have compromised the purity of the motive somewhat by giving tax rebates for contributions to registered charities, but the definition remains. Since tax rebates add to the taxation of everybody else, the definition is important.

Family First, well known for promoting its views on a number of social issues, thinks it is a charity. It may appeal to the High Court against a Charities Registration Board ruling that it is not a charity for tax purposes. If it does, it will have some unfamiliar company. Greenpeace is going to the Supreme Court in July, seeking to overturn a similar ruling by the board's antecedent, the Charities Commission, in 2010.

Family First and the Sensible Sentencing Trust find themselves on the same side as the Green Party who have called for a public debate on the definition of a charity, and one Green MP, Denise Roche, has prepared a bill that would extend the definition to policy advocacy, which is what these groups principally do.

Advocacy is not charity. It might be a selfless unpaid activity undertaken for the greater good as the advocates see it, but it is not serving anybody's personal material needs. The closest to charity work that Family First and the Sensible Sentencing Trust claim to do involves assisting individual families and victims of crime.

Victims have certainly gained from the legal recognition and compensation rights won by the trust, and some people in family disputes may have received a benefit from Family First's less visible advocacy, but there is a vast difference between helping people claim public assistance and providing assistance.

Charities raise funds to give to the needy or to pay for goods and services for them. When people respond to their appeals, they are entitled to expect that their money will help the needy directly, and that not too much of it will go to the administration of the appeal or the charity. Charities that also indulge in political advocacy put their fund-raising ability at risk.

Advocacy usually involves contentious argument from a clear political position. Charities of course can also be politically contentious - if they appear to be exposing government failure, creating dependence or stigmatising recipients - but they attract a tax rebate because there is general recognition that they meet needs that might otherwise have to be met from public funds.

The same cannot be said of advocacy groups. Defending her bill, Denise Roche said: "Not-for-profits and charitable organisations have a real role in advocating for a better society and if we are unable to do that then we lose a voice." If an advocacy group is unable to survive on voluntary financial support then it needs to ask itself why.

Its inability to survive would not threaten democracy, as Ms Roche suggests. Taxpayers already support organisations advocating for a better society in various ways. They are called political parties. They are provided with radio and television time before elections and substantial research and communications resources if they win seats in Parliament.

The taxpayer need not also finance through rebates any group that decides to give the public the benefit of its wisdom. If advocacy was to have the tax status of charity, the taxpayer could be obliged to subsidise all sorts of views, some of them decidedly unpleasant. It is healthier that advocacy groups can speak as loudly as their own funds permit.

Their social contribution, worthy as it may be, is not charity and should not be confused with it.

- NZ Herald

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