Charitable purpose and political activity (updated)

An August 2014 decision by the Supreme Court has developed the law on what may qualify as a charitable purpose. 

The Department of Internal Affairs’ - Charities Services and the independent Charities Registration Board have reviewed our approach to assessing applications for registration in the light of the Supreme Court’s recent decision on an appeal brought by Greenpeace New Zealand, and have updated the guidance for organisations considering applying to register as a charity.

In its decision, the Supreme Court found that political activity may itself be accepted as a charitable purpose (rather than just being "ancillary” to an organisation’s main purpose). However, the Court also found that it may be uncommon for political purposes to be charitable purposes.

Refer to the Supreme Court judgment [PDF, 360 KB] [PDF, 360 KB] and media release for details.

To be eligible to register as a charity, an applicant has to show that its purpose and activities meet the definition of a ‘charitable purpose’ set out in the Charities Act 2005—relieving poverty, or advancing education or religion, or other things beneficial to the community. There is a long history of case law that helps to define what can be considered charitable, and the Supreme Court decision now forms part of the law that we apply when considering each application.

Many not-for-profit organisations try to influence change by raising awareness of a societal issue or by lobbying to change the law. This has never been treated as a bar to registration as a charity, provided that the activity was ancillary to an entity's main charitable purpose.

While the Supreme Court decision found that political activity may now itself be accepted as a charitable purpose, an applicant must still demonstrate that its purposes and all its activities provide benefits to the public or a sufficient section of the public, not just to an individual, organisation or closed group, as well as being charitable. Applicants must also demonstrate that they meet all of the other requirements of the Act.

The Court’s decision does not invalidate the independent Charities Registration Board’s previous decisions to decline to register any applicant, or to deregister any previously registered charity on the basis of political advocacy. Those decisions applied the law as the courts interpreted it to be at the time.

The Charities Registration Board and the Department of Internal Affairs - Charities Services now apply the law as it has been clarified by the Supreme Court.

Any organisation that has previously been declined registration or deregistered on the basis of political advocacy that was not “ancillary” to a main charitable purpose can, if it wishes, submit a fresh application for registration. Applicants will need to demonstrate that they meet all of the requirements of the Act, including that:

  • all their purposes are recognised by the law as charitable, or ancillary to a charitable purpose;
  • all their activities advance their charitable purposes;
  • all their purposes and activities provide an established public benefit (that is the benefit is recognised at law and isn’t limited to an individual, or a group, to the exclusion of others, unless that group is in charitable need);
  • any political advocacy is directed towards a charitable end through charitable means (analogous to previous cases); and
  • any political advocacy is directed towards an established public benefit.

The independent Charities Registration Board is also required by the decision to make an assessment of any illegal activity in which the applicant organisation or its supporters are involved.

All applications are considered carefully on their own merits.

Charities that are already registered that decide to amend their rules to include political advocacy purposes must notify the Department of Internal Affairs - Charities Services of the amendment to the rules. The Department of Internal Affairs - Charities Services assesses any amendments to charities’ rules, to be sure they continue to remain qualified for registration. Any rules amendments that involve political advocacy purposes will be assessed, and the principles set out in the Supreme Court judgment will be applied. For more information, please read our updated guidance: