Exclusive: Deregistration could affect financial viability of more than 1,800 sporting bodies and clubs

Plans to field New Zealand entrants in all 14 rowing events at next year's Rio Olympics are threatened by a drive by government officials to deregister potentially hundreds of sporting bodies from the register of charities.

Rowing New Zealand, which supported this week's Halberg Awards supreme winners Hamish Bond and Eric Murray, says the move threatens its plan to raise $1 million from philanthropic donors to send more rowers to Rio than it has fielded in past Olympics.

Swimming New Zealand has been deregistered already on the same grounds that its promotion of competitive swimming is "an end in itself" and is not "charitable".

Its chief executive Christian Renford said the change might force cuts in water safety and learn-to-swim programmes. He has called a meeting with other sporting codes on Monday to discuss a cross-sports response.

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The 50 members of the 117-year-old Cambridge Bowling Club are bewildered by a letter from the Internal Affairs Department's Charities Services saying their club will be deregistered unless they provide evidence by Monday proving their activities are charitable.

Club president Eric Redder, 77, said most members were elderly and the club needed charitable status to raise money, such as about $200,000 it is seeking from philanthropic trusts for new turf on a green.

He was at the club this week hosting students from St Peter's School, who use the club without charge and compete in secondary school bowling championships.

Bill Gibson, Eric Redder and Henry Collett at the Cambridge Bowling Club. Photo / Christine Cornege
Bill Gibson, Eric Redder and Henry Collett at the Cambridge Bowling Club. Photo / Christine Cornege

"The club looks after the community. We have a business-house tournament for six nights. We go round the town and we try and get teams of different businesses to come down and play bowls, and they love it," he said.

More than 1800 sporting bodies are registered charities. Donors can get tax rebates and the bodies can raise money from some philanthropic trusts that give only to registered charities.

Parliament amended the Charities Act in 2012 specifically to include the promotion of amateur sport as a charitable purpose "if it is a means by which a charitable purpose listed in [the definition of charitable purposes] is pursued".

But officials are insisting sports bodies on the register must fit within the definition of charitable purposes, which is defined in a 414-year-old law as including "every charitable purpose, whether it relates to the relief of poverty, the advancement of education or religion, or any other matter beneficial to the community".

Court decisions since have interpreted this last phrase to include only activities that fit within the "spirit" of charitable activities listed in the preamble to the Elizabethan law, and that directly benefit a sufficient section of the community, not just club members or elite athletes.

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However Rowing New Zealand chief executive Simon Peterson said losing charitable status would have a "significant impact" on plans to raise private donations for the Rio games.

"We have never before had 14 boats at the Olympics, and we have to find a significant amount of funding to make that a reality both for Rio and for Tokyo in 2020.

"We are very grateful for the Government support we get, but we need [an extra] $500,000 a year per eight. We need a men's eight and a women's eight, so we are looking for upwards of $1 million."

Community and Voluntary Sector Minister Jo Goodhew said there were no immediate plans to review the definition.

In the gun

• Over 1,800 sporting bodies are registered charities.

• Charities Services say: "As a general proposition, bodies established to administer and manage a sporting code or discipline in a region or for a nation are likely to be established for the purpose of promoting sport as an end in itself. As such, entities of this kind are likely to lie outside the scope of charity in NZ law."

• Eighty bowling clubs and many other sports clubs may also be deregistered unless they can prove they benefit the wider community.