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Motion to Strike Special Committee on the Charitable Sector

Motion to Strike Special Committee on the Charitable Sector

Motion to Strike Special Committee on the Charitable Sector

Motion to Strike Special Committee on the Charitable Sector


Published on 1 June 2017
Hansard and Statements by Senator Terry Mercer

Hon. Terry M. Mercer:

Honourable senators, I am honoured to rise today to speak to you on this motion to create a special committee to study charities and non-profits and the volunteers who support them.

As a professional fundraiser for most of my life, I have seen some good reforms to government policy, and I have seen some bad. But I always saw, and continue to see, great volunteers.

I have spoken in this place many times about charities and non-profits and the value of volunteers, so for some of you, much of this information is nothing new. However, I hope all of you will understand the value of this sector in Canada and that it will encourage you to support this motion and study.

The philanthropic sector has been a very important part of my life. From the backrooms to the front lines, the entire sector is so vast and diverse that I believe it is time that we take a look at the policies that govern the work non-profits and charities do and what we can do to encourage more volunteers and support the ones already there.

I would like to acknowledge the work of Senators Eggleton and Tardif on our Liberal Senate Forum Open Caucus initiative. Indeed, we had a very informative meeting on the charitable sector in February.

Since I have been working on the idea of a special committee for a while now, I decided the time was right to introduce the motion here in the Senate. I hope you will support me in this initiative.

I believe we should approach this study by: examining the impact that volunteers have in our great country; studying the policies and laws that govern the work that non-profits and charities do; and exploring innovative ideas that could lead to change where needed.

Charities and non-profits cannot exist without volunteers. Imagine trying to deliver meals to seniors or running a political campaign without them.

But also, imagine a volunteer showing up — to make phone calls for cancer care or to sort food at the food bank — to a locked building because the organization could not afford to keep the lights on.

Volunteers are indeed the life support of non-profit and charitable organizations across Canada and around the world. In fact, the philanthropic sector draws on over 2 billion volunteer hours, which is the equivalent of over 1 million full-time jobs in Canada. You have heard those stats before and you can see why it is important to repeat them.

The philanthropic sector employs over 2 million Canadians and has a significant impact on our economy: It accounts for over 6 per cent of our GDP. But there is a current downward trend in the number of people donating their time and money to fund worthwhile organizations.

According to the Statistics Canada General Social Survey: Giving, volunteering and participating, 2013, 12.7 million Canadians, or 44 per cent of people 15 years of age and older, participated in some form of volunteer work. This represents a decrease from a high of 47 per cent in 2010 and follows a slight increase recorded between 2004 and 2010.

The total number of volunteers was lower in 2013 than in 2010, at 12.7 and 13.2 million respectively. This translates into a 4 per cent decline in the total number of Canadian volunteers. However, the population of people 15 years of age and older increased by about 1 million during the same period.

Volunteers contributed 154 hours on average in 2013, unchanged from 2010, but that was lower than the 168 hours recorded in 2004.

Why are these numbers falling? Do they continue to fall? I, for one, would like to find out.

In the report of the Senate Special Committee on Aging released in 2009, it was recommended that a further study be initiated by a special committee to examine the impact of the voluntary sector in Canada. Recently, the aforementioned Senate Liberal Caucus hosted an open caucus on charities and echoed the same thing.

Canada’s philanthropic sector is in need of a comprehensive review. We need to increase our understanding of the sector and encourage more people to volunteer and donate. We need to ask the right questions to see what the sector needs to continue to provide the much needed services to families and to our communities.

Honourable senators, you would be hard-pressed to find any person living in this country that has not been touched in some way by a non-profit or charitable organization.

The major legislation governing non-profit and charitable organizations is that famous Income Tax Act. The act sets out the provision for the registration of charities, a process which allows exemptions from income tax and allows donors to claim tax credits or the like.

The current basic provisions of the Income Tax Act relating to charities were introduced in the 1960s. Within the early years of the system, there were some 35,000 registered charities. There are over 170,000 charitable and non-profit organizations in Canada today, and 85,000 of those are registered charities which are recognized by the Canada Revenue Agency.

We have not had an in-depth review to see if the laws and policies regulating non-profits and charities are adequate.

Non-profits and charities deliver services and programs where there is a lack of service being provided by others, and specifically, not being delivered by government.

Today, charities are looking for new ways to sustain themselves and the services they provide to Canadians. This is not simply about tax credits or the like; it is about the entire sector — from the volunteers to the CEOs. Frankly, this special committee is needed and needed now.

Honourable senators, I have asked myself the following questions while designing what I think we can do with this type of study. Ask yourselves the following questions. The list is long, but you’ll notice the questions are all very important.

How do we modernize the non-profit and charitable sectors in Canada? Why do we need volunteers and donations? What motivates someone to volunteer or donate? How does age affect volunteering and donating? How does socio-economic status or geography affect volunteering or donating? How do gender, culture and language affect volunteering and donating? What can we do to encourage more volunteering and donating, and what form would that encouragement take? What areas are in need of more volunteers or donations? What factors prevent people from volunteering and donating? How are current tax credits working? How should they be updated? How is the Income Tax Act performing to support charities, non-profits and volunteers? What ideas have been tried in the past? What continues to work? What does not work?

When we look at how the philanthropic sector is governed, how efficient and effective are the policies? How transparent is the process? Do people trust charities? How ethical are non-profits acting? Are volunteers being trained properly to adhere to the regulations? How do charities actually raise money and encourage volunteers? How has this changed in the digital age? How does the size of the charity impact its fundraising efforts and volunteer sign-ups? How are charities regulated? Are there barriers to their success, either provincially or federally, or both? How do government departments interact with charities?

I could go on and on because, as you just heard, there are many questions that need answering and plenty more, I’m sure, that will come up during this study.

One other question, though, is who would we talk to? Well, it would be appropriate to speak with federal and provincial government officials, of course. We would also need to hear from non-profit and charitable organizations themselves. They represent a vast array of services in the fields of health, the environment, hospitals, international aid and development, science, social services, the arts, religion, recreation and sport, and of course politics.

There are also organizations that represent groups of non-profit and charitable organizations themselves, including the Association of Fundraising Professionals’ Foundation for Philanthropy in Canada, Imagine Canada, the Muttart Foundation, United Ways across the country and many others.

Honourable senators, I did save the best witness for last: volunteers. Organizations like Volunteer Canada work to support volunteers in the work they do and would be invaluable to the work of this special committee.

As for the committee itself, I do realize that we are busy and time to conduct hearings is limited to certain days and times. That is why I’ve suggested that the committee be made up of eight senators, with the form of committee being representative of different regions across the country, ideally equal in gender and across the three groups that sit here in the Senate.

If we get the framework ready to start the study — perhaps in the fall — we could have a year and would report by the end of September 2018. I would hope that we could get this approved prior to the break this June so that we could do some work over the summer and get the committee at least working, if only by conference call.

Is that enough time for such a job to study? Maybe we would need to get the time extended at the end, but that will be determined.

The timing of meetings is also important to mention. For our new colleagues here, this would be one of the first special committees that we’ve had since many of you have arrived. It would probably mean some meetings on Thursday evenings, when we don’t normally have committee hearings, or Friday mornings, and maybe even Monday evenings. I don’t like Monday evenings because it’s difficult for people, particularly from Western Canada, to be here in time for meetings, but we would work that out. We would probably sit during several break weeks, not the full week.

I’m trying to be frank with our new colleagues to show them this is the commitment that the people who join the committee — Senator Cordy and I were on the Special Committee on Aging, and it was a commitment we had to make to give up some time.

While not ideal to some, we must think about the work of this special committee that will be so important to the volunteers and organizations that are an essential part of the very fabric of Canadian society.

Honourable senators, I hope this has provoked some thought and that you will support the motion wholeheartedly. Volunteering is an integral part of Canadian culture. Our society would not function to its best right now without the existence of the non-profit and charitable sectors.

In understanding who is volunteering and what they are volunteering for, we would have a greater understanding of the issues that are important to Canadians. In understanding how non-profit and charitable organizations operate within the current framework, we would have a greater understanding of how we could update those policies that would help them deliver the services so desperately needed.

One final thing, honourable senators. All of us here have interacted with tens of thousands of volunteers across the country for political parties or for causes that we hold dear to our hearts. We should remember that they are volunteers, and we should thank them for their participation as much as we can. We all, I hope, continue to volunteer for our causes as well.

People volunteer their time and money, and non-profit and charitable organizations provide services that are invaluable to our communities. Let’s see what we can do to help them.