The Charities Directorate of the Canada Revenue Agency has restarted their in-person educational program for the charitable sector after a being cancelled in 2013 under Prime Minister Stephen Harper. The first Charities Information Session was held in Ottawa the morning of May 28th, 2019. We audited the first class to get a feel for whether we would recommend attending it. If your charitable organization or foundation is considering sending a board member, a treasurer, a volunteer, or an employee, here is what you can expect.
As the title of this article indicates, we do recommend that charities send a representative to take the session, but with a grain of salt. We recognized the time and thought that went into it. The three hour session was dense, but the complex rules were generally presented in accessible language. The tone was upbeat and friendly. The two presenters both introduced themselves as having eleven years of experience in the Charities Directorate. Questions from attendees were encouraged and answered in a thoughtful way. The presenters were accompanied by at least ten other Charities Directorate employees lining the back of the room, who chipped in when questions from attendees became technical. There was a generous amount of one-on-one question time with the twelve or so Charities Directorate employees. The team on this clearly went out of their way to make this helpful.
These sessions are absolutely worth sending one or two representatives to attend. But here is that grain of salt we promised; just because a Charities Directorate employee tells you something, does not mean it’s true.
Glib, yes. But the Charities Directorate is an insulated sliver of a government tax agency which is in the very awkward position of not having constitutional authority to regulate charities. These sessions are touted by the CRA as “a great way to learn about your charity’s legal obligations”; giving the impression that the information session is more encompassing than it is. The Charities Directorate could have done a better job of managing the audience’s expectations. The Charities Directorate deals with one facet of charity’s legal obligations, and only that one facet. Charities have many legal obligations which the Charities Directorate is neither responsible for, nor—it seems from some of their answers—aware of.
And to be clear, it is not the Charity Directorate’s job to be alert to all the facets of charity’s legal obligations. We think that it is fair to say that they (usually, but not always) understand their own policy, which is (usually, but not always) a reflection of actual law. So when a representative of the Charities Directorate says something during a Charities Information Session, even with absolute certainty, keep in mind that it is only from the limited perspective of that one insulated sliver of a government tax agency.
Having handed out that grain of salt, we should point out the sugar. First, they are providing valuable free resources to charities. And second, these sessions are an opportunity for the Charities Directorate to educate itself.
If you have ever been on the phone with the Charities Directorate (and we are, often), you may know that the representatives answering the phones are prone to misstating charities’ compliance requirements if they are not clear on how something should be done. Even when the problem falls squarely in the Charity Directorate’s purview. Members of the Charities Directorate tends to share their misconceptions like the flu, incubating misconceptions internally amongst themselves and then breathing them out on the sector one phone conversation at a time. These misconceptions create an onerous and unnecessary burden carried disproportionately by small and medium charities. This problem is not isolated to the Charities Directorate—a 2017 audit by the found that CRA agents gave wrong information almost 30 percent of the time”! 
But a hasty wrong answer given over the phone after an hour on hold does not stand up so well in a room crowded with experience. So long as one person knows the true answer and stands up to share it, the entire room leaves wiser. This is exactly what happened at the first information session. One presenter fielded a question about keeping books and records in a cloud. The presenter responded that all the servers must be physically located on-site—which is painful to contemplate! This generated a flurry of agitated questions and protests from the sophisticated charities’ representatives in the room. After several minutes, one of the many, many Charities Directorate employees in attendance arrived at the conclusion that gently but publicly correcting a co-worker would be better than the alternative. He interrupted to assure attendees that all of the servers must be in Canada, but not necessarily located in the office. This scenario played out twice in the session we attended—another misstatement, outcry, and correction happened during a discussion of whether charities can return gifts.
And that, in its way, is a beautiful thing. We would be willing to bet that there were more than a couple Charities Directorate employees who were cured of a misconception that morning. And the next session they gave would be better for it. And so on, we hope.
So, whether you are green or seasoned, we do recommend attending one of these sessions if it comes to your city—to learn and to teach.
But remember to bring your grain of salt.
 These sessions are touted by the CRA as “a great way to learn about your charity’s legal obligations”. Accessed online May 30, 2019: https://www.canada.ca/en/revenue-agency/services/charities-giving/charities/guidance-videos-forms/charities-information-sessions.html
 With absolute certainty, one presenter said that it is perfectly fine to repurpose a gift given for a specific purpose. Any attendee who looked of his or her shoulder at the back of the room would have seen at the line-up of CRA employees nodding along, conveying their experience and calm authority. As you may be able to guess, no it is not perfectly fine! We suppose no one attending was much of a trust law buff.
 “2017 Fall Reports of the Auditor General of Canada to the Parliament of Canada: Report 2—Call Centres—Canada Revenue Agency”, http://www.oag-bvg.gc.ca/internet/English/parl_oag_201711_02_e_42667.html.
By: Lex Klombies