These days there are likely few charities which do not have a web site which gives information about the organization, tells about its charitable objectives and often is a vehicle for fund-raising. But as important as the web site is, it is crucial that one carefully monitor the material which is posted. Very often, the person who sets up and maintains the site may not be cognizant with the limits which must be observed when posting material.
The organization must be aware that the first thing the CRA does when it considers audits of a charity or gets complaints about a charity is to take a look at the web site. This is hardly surprising but what we have often found is that a critical look at a charity web site often sends up “red flags” to the Charities Directorate.
But there is another matter which should be noted. While the PR gurus speak about the web site as being a major informational source for potential donors and the CRA speaks of the T-3010 report as being useful to potential donors, our experience over many, many years is that those hostile to the organization will be perhaps the majority of viewers of both web sites and T-3010 forms. They can generate all sorts of mischief including complaints to the CRA if there are elements which appear to them to be “wrong”.
So care must be exercised.
The following is a list (but not comprehensive) of some of the things to watch out for.
First, when discussing what the charity does, it is important to keep in mind not only what its formal objects are but also what the general rules of what is “charitable” encompass. Very often, in an expansive attempt to explain what the charity does, statements appear about activities which may not be viewed as charitable. For example, one organization we know which was helping fund an orphanage abroad, noted that it paid for weddings of orphaned girls. But common law cases take the position that paying for weddings, even for an impoverished orphan, is not charitable. The CRA picked up on this item even though most of the charity’s supporters would have enthusiastically funded the concept.
Indeed, when setting out activities which are aimed at generating donations, great care must be given to statements about how the funds will be used and to avoid activities which might be popular with potential donors but not consistent with the narrow definition of “charity”.
Hyperbolic statement about the good work which is being carried out should be reigned in because often we have found that self-praise can cross the line in terms of what the organization’s ;egal and common law mandate is.
If the Canadian organization is set up in situations where there is already an established web site in another country for a similar organization, beware of simply importing material. For example, acceptable activities in the United States for a 401©(3) organization often encompass activities which are not consistent with Canadian charitable law. If you simply import material from a non-Canadian site, you must have somebody vet that material to ensure that it does not contain material which would not be acceptable to a registered charity in Canada.
Using links on your web site can also create risks.
For example, your organization may support limited work of a foreign organization, the limits of which are spelled out in an agency agreement. But the foreign organization may have a much broader mandate beyond what the Canadian charity is supporting under the agreement. A link directly to the foreign organization may create problems where their web site contains masses of (by Canadian standards) non-charitable activity reports. If that is the case after looking at the foreign web site, don’t put in a link. CRA may (and has) imputed to the Canadian organization activities which it does not undertake simply because of the link.
While generally, using links to other registered Canadian charities is acceptable, be very careful when the link is to a non-charity including non-profit organizations. Having the link may suggest a linkage to non-charitable activity. In addition, the CRA may (and has) taken the position that such a link is in effect a usage of charity funds for the benefit of a non-charity…a definite “no-no”.
Any link which takes one to a non-registered charity which is raising funds for some purpose, however worthy, carries risks if an auditor takes a look at the web site.
Obviously the same is true if the link is to a commercial web site. But there are some common sense exceptions. If a newspaper or magazine has published an article which is germane to your organization, a link to the publication will not likely raise eye-brows at the CRA.
One should also be extremely wary about any “political” comments which appear on the web site. Clearly statements in support or opposition to a political party are beyond the pale. But if you feel the need to comment on such matters as proposed legislation which has some bearing on the organization’s mandate, care must be taken to present a balanced view and we would suggest, one should eschew any “calls for action” by readers either in support of or against proposals. (The risks in this area escalate when an election has been called and the applicable Elections Act provisions may also come into play.)
We would also suggest that comments in support or in opposition to individuals Members of Parliament or Members of a provincial legislature should be avoided. It may seem like a good idea to praise a cabinet minister who initiated a programme which the organization sees as beneficial but this also raises potential risks.
As we said earlier, this is not intended as a comprehensive list of danger points in web site material but each example is taken from actual audit issues which we are only too aware of. If we had one single piece of advice, it would be to have a person overseeing the content of the web site which is familiar with the potential pitfalls and who has the authority to edit material before it is posted. Arguing that your webmaster “didn’t know” what should not have been posted doesn’t count for much with CRA auditors if the the charity comes under scrutiny.