Almost no one outside the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) saw it coming. Not industry insiders. Not advocate agencies. Heck, not even the well-connected and respected charity sector giant, Imagine Canada.
And yet, there it was, popping up on the Agency’s Internet webpage at the very tail end of 2016 (on December 30, 2016, to be exact). The “it” in question is the CRA’s inaugural Report on the Charities Program 2015-2016, a part web document, part PowerPoint “reveal” of their renewed commitment to open communication with Canadians.
The National Revenue Minister, The Hon. Mme Diane Lebouthillier, is given pride of place on this new webpage, declaring in an opening statement that the report is intended to reflect “...our government's commitment to openness and transparency by showing how the CRA's Charities Directorate contributes to the effective regulation of charities.”
Subsequent statements and further introductions about the document’s vision and purpose follow from CRA Commissioner Bob Hamilton and the Director General of the Charities Directorate, Tony Manconi. From there, the document gets into sections all about the Charities Directorate’s functions, followed by definitions of how the Agency defines what constitutes a charitable activity in Canada [Spoiler: it’s derived from interpretation of Common Law on charity], and a slew of eye-catching pictograms and info-graphs putting the charitable sector into bite-sized, easily digestible morsels of sector metrics at the public’s fingertips.
It’s actually quite the impressive, imaginative accomplishment say some of the top sector experts - many of whom were surprised to see the government webpage appear at all, given how sterile and rote government websites are wont to be.
Imagining a more open CRA
In Toronto and Ottawa staff at Imagine Canada were pleasantly surprised to find the new document available to Canadians.
Though for the most part “in the loop” and having input ahead of these types of government initiatives – whether as consultants, advisors or just getting a heads-up from their governmental contacts – this time around, Imagine found out at the same time as the rest of the population.
“We are regularly in touch with the CRA and...we didn't know about the release of the charities program report. However, we were very pleased to see the report as it is a great informative and educational way to communicate with the sector about what [the Agency does] and demystifies their processes,” Marnie Grona, Imagine’s director of marketing and communications told CharityVillage.
Asked about whether Imagine is aware of any next steps for the CRA building off reports like this or if the Agency has since spoken with Grona’s governmental affairs colleagues to discuss feedback or input going forward on similar transparency projects, Grona said her organization had not yet been consulted. “However, we do speak with them quite regularly on a number of things,” she added, noting that going forward she hopes the government will “track responses from people and mine data from website analytics to see how [readers] are engaging with the report. This can help them with their future communications and engagement decisions.”
The price is right
The CRA posting didn’t go unnoticed by the nation’s large corporate responsibility community either.
James Temple, chief corporate responsibility officer at PwC Canada, also was impressed by the Agency’s move. He calls the site, “an easy-to-read tool to help all Canadians better visualize the scope and public interest in the Canadian charitable sector.”
Beyond that, the new level of transparency aligns, Temple says, with an ever-emerging philosophy among sector CEOs – namely, that the way to build trust happens through “open and transparent communication and using focused language and infographics to help a reader explore and understand detailed concepts and processes.”
The CRA’s approach to disseminating its updated tools and resources, alongside presenting financial information - including process and results from their charitable audits – “align well with this kind of thinking.”
Temple adds: “The focus on clarifying standard definitions, context for the CRA audit process and information related to charitable applications, and engaging with the Charities Directorate itself shines as extremely useful.”
A philanthropic info tour de force
In Toronto, another VIP of the Canadian charitable sector landscape was similarly fascinated by the CRA’s shift in communications tone. Malcolm Burrows, head of philanthropic advisory services at Scotia Private Client Group (and former chair of the Canadian Association of Gift Planners), noted how the Agency made good use of what he termed a “razzle-dazzle” info blitz.
“They have done variations on the report in the past through the Charities Directorate newsletter, but with a new Government they seem to want to claim a ‘first’ in the interest of transparency,” Burrows said. “Naturally, the primary focus [is] on key CRA stats: applications, registrations, audits, etc. The focus is compliance and administrative activity, although this report also throws in some charity education, such as the video on gifting and receipting.”
He believes the CRA should be “applauded” for this effort, given that it has some strong information and is “much more colourful and accessible than years past.”
As a last point, Burrows notes that the CRA now has a suite of strong charity education tools, but they are being relatively under utilized. With the release of the Report on the Charities Program 2015-2016, it’s hoped the word is now “out” that the CRA has become much more consumer-friendly and is open for the business of charity sector education in a much more coherent and “fun” way.
If you are at all interested or involved in charitable activities in this country, this document should now be a “must-read” on your list.
Andy Levy-Ajzenkopf is a professional writer living in Toronto. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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