Canadian Charities do a lot of great work. But with over 86,000 of them, and a few hundred really bad apples amongst the lot, and probably thousands of ineffectual charities, there will be times that you will be disappointed in a charity. When you have a concern about a charity, or a charity does something wrong, here are some ideas.
If you have a complaint about a registered Canadian charity, the first thing to do is to discuss the complaint with the charity. In the vast majority of cases, registered charities are responsible and respond to queries and concerns. The charity may have a very legitimate reason for their action or there may have been a misunderstanding, etc. As well, sometimes charities make mistakes just like people or businesses - it is inevitable. In many cases, the inadequacy of a charity and its operations relates more to lack of resources or volunteers with the necessary skills. It is easy to complain about a charity, but in many cases, consider volunteering and helping the charity improve their operations.
Before proceeding to another level, it is a good idea to discuss the complaint with someone who knows a lot about charities - whether it be a person working for a different charity or your own professional advisor, etc. Having an independent voice to discuss the complaint can be helpful. Many complaints we see about charities are individuals simply not liking a charity or its mission; not liking an officer or employee of the charity, or even not have a basic understanding of how charities work. Yes charities are allowed to hire staff. Yes charities can spend reasonable amounts on administration. Yes charities can engage in foreign activities, political activities and business activities, as long as they are within the CRA rules.
If your complaint relates to a donation that you have made to the charity, then look at your donation agreement and what recourse it has.
Next, if you have not achieved a satisfactory response, see whether the charity is a member of an organization that has a code of conduct and whether the actions of the charity may contravene such code of conduct. In some cases, the codes of conduct or codes of ethics also provide for a mechanism for complaining about the particular conduct to another body eg. Imagine Canada, Association of Fundraising Professionals, etc.
Another way to complain about charities is to contact the media. Send a note to a reporter interested in charities and who has written about charities. You may wish to read some of the articles by Kevin Donovan of the Toronto Star or David Baines, who is retired but used to be with the Vancouver Sun. No disrespect to umbrella organizations or charity regulators, but charities are far more concerned about the media writing a negative article than all the other mechanisms combined.
If you wish to complain about the conduct of a Canadian registered charity, then you can also contact the Charities Directorate of CRA. See the CRA Website at https://www.canada.ca/en/revenue-agency/services/charities-giving/charities/contact-charities-directorate.html You should provide detailed information on any problem to CRA. Unfortunately, registered charities are treated like individuals and they are accorded lots of privacy rights. This does not make much sense to me, but CRA will not be able to tell you if they are investigating a charity because of your complaint or someone else’s complaint, etc. But complaining to the CRA is almost always a last resort.
As the regulation of registered charities is both a provincial and federal responsibility, your provincial public guardian and trustee, or equivalent, may also be prepared to act on a complaint. For example, in Ontario you can contact the Public Guardian and Trustee https://www.attorneygeneral.jus.gov.on.ca/english/family/pgt/charbullet/bullet4.php.
If the complaint involves fraud, you may wish to contact your local police or the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre of the Canadian Government at 1-888-495-8501 or at http://www.antifraudcentre-centreantifraude.ca/index-eng.htm.
Do you require legal advice with respect to Canadian or Ontario non-profits or charities?
Mark Blumberg is a partner at the law firm of Blumberg Segal LLP in Toronto and works almost exclusively in the areas of non-profit and charity law.