Though Christian churches and other faith communities make up about 40 per cent of the 75,000 registered charities in Canada, these were virtually ignored by a panel reviewing charities in Canada. The government appointed panel devoted almost all its attention to the other 60 per cent of charities and 100,000 organizations in the non-profit sector. That’s both good news and bad news for churches. Jim Cullen, financial manager for the Anglican General Synod, says the recommendations of the six-member panel headed by former NDP leader Ed Broadbent don’t mention churches and faith communities much. “It looks like a good report,” says Mr. Cullen. He adds that the church supports the panel’s recommendations for accountability in the charitable sector. Mr. Cullen welcomed the panel’s suggestion that increased reporting, with all the paperwork and staff time that requires, be limited to charities with annual revenue of more than $200,000. That cut-off level would spare small parishes the task. Still, Mr. Cullen believes the cutoff should be even higher because it is a “low threshold,” he said. The only bad news in the report is the “outcomes based” assessment of charities, especially if that were applied to churches. Churches are different from other charities, argues Cullen, and can’t be assessed in the same way. The Broadbent report doesn’t mention applying this assessment to churches, but there is concern that any assessment system could eventually be applied to churches. The report, which culminates two years of study and consultation, offers 40 recommendations for improvements in the governance and accountability of the charitable and non-profit sectors in Canada. The size of the voluntary sector is impressive. When the health and education sectors are included, the voluntary sector provides 1.3 million jobs in Canada, with annual revenues of $90 billion and assets of $109 billion. That is comparable in size to the economy of British Columbia, Canada’s third most populous province. Rather than shrinking, the voluntary sector is expanding. The per centage of Canadians volunteering their time has increased significantly in the past decade from 27 per cent to 31 per cent. The number of youth 18- to 24-years-old volunteering has almost doubled from 18 per cent in 1987 to 33 per cent in 1997. Donations by Canadians to charities and non-profit organizations amount to more than $4.5 billion a year. In recent years some church organizations have worried that Revenue Canada is taking on too much of the task for defining what is and is not a charity. The Broadbent panel, not mentioning churches specifically, appears to side with churches when it says decisions on charitable status should be made by Parliament, not by judges ruling on appeals of Revenue Canada decisions. Mr. Broadbent said the panel wants to “build on the existing strengths” of charities and non-profit organizations which are already “on the right track.” “We found that the sector is actively and intelligently addressing its accountability issues and responsibilities,” said Broadbent. The panel recommends a code of good governance for all voluntary and not-for-profit organizations and their boards, but carefully notes that churches and faith communities have their own regulations and changes won’t necessarily apply to them. The panel calls for the creation of a new Voluntary Sector Commission, similar to one already established in the United Kingdom. The commission would support efforts by charities to strengthen their accountability and governance practices. There is also recognition in the report that the charitable and non-profit sectors need to be represented at the highest levels of government. The Broadbent panel suggests provincial and federal cabinets each appoint a minister to represent the interests of the voluntary sector. Representatives of churches and faith communities met with the panel after its preliminary report was issued. But the prime target of the review remained the non-religious part of the voluntary sector.
Bob Bettson is a Toronto-based freelance writer.