For Greenpeace, charity ends at home
Canada, where Greenpeace began, has decided that the organisation serves 'no public benefit'. Roger Bate reports
Greenpeace may be rising in respectability, but only a few months ago it suffered a blow to its credibility and fundraising efforts. Revenue Canada refused to give the Greenpeace Environmental Foundation the charitable status it has sought for a decade, saying its activities had 'no public benefit' and that lobbying to close down industries could send people 'into poverty'.
Canada is the first country accurately to recognise Greenpeace as the most successful of the multinational anxiety corporations. Whether any country in the European Union has the guts to follow its lead is another matter.
Greenpeace began in Vancouver 30 years ago with its anti-nuclear 'Stop Making Waves' campaign, and was registered as a charity in 1976. Since then it has grown into a multimillion-dollar slick operation. The organisation lost its charitable status in 1989, amid concerns that it was not a true charity. It immediately established the Greenpeace Canada Charitable Foundation, to do essentially the same job but to be legally distinct from Greenpeace. But according to court records obtained by John Duncan, the Reform Party MP from British Columbia who has been fighting Greenpeace's anti-logging campaign, the federal charities division found that the group's activities 'have not complied with the law'. 'This opinion resulted from an audit which raised serious concerns about the charity's compliance with the Income Tax Act. The audit revealed that the charity had failed to devote all its resources to charitable activities.' Of particular concern were the financial links between the charity, Greenpeace International and Greenpeace Canada. Officials were also concerned because the charity appeared to be a fundraising machine for Greenpeace.
Consequently, the second Greenpeace venture lost its charitable status in 1995. The group launched a court appeal which was dismissed in September 1998; but by then a new charity, called the Greenpeace Environmental Foundation, had been created. Revenue Canada called the latest charity 'a convenient way to avoid the consequences' of its past troubled charities and refused to register the group. Greenpeace appealed against the decision but the court challenge ended this summer, after the group threw in the towel.
Revenue Canada says that preserving the environment is recognised as a charitable activity, but the Greenpeace foundation does not qualify because its stated purpose is 'public awareness'. The difficulty in this regard is that 'we have no evidence that the distribution to the public of a pamphlet on, for example, the destruction of forests (along the Amazon or the British Columbia coast) or on the various pollutants emanating from smokestacks has any measurable impact on the environment', said a spokesman for Revenue Canada.
Why would Greenpeace want charity status anyway? Its slick marketing leaves donors with the impression that it is a shoestring operation, where every dollar goes towards responsible, public-spirited environmentalism. But a look at Greenpeace's finances filed before its charity status was pulled shows that Greenpeace operates more like an advertising company than the Salvation Army. In the last year of its charitable status, the Greenpeace Canada Charitable Foundation reported $383 374 in donations. From that, a whopping $114 178 was spent on fundraising expenses, and $90 702 on salaries. It is remarkable that Greenpeaceniks had money left for placards.
Without charitable status, Greenpeace cannot offer tax receipts to its donors. In its decision, Revenue Canada wrote that in order to be a charity an organisation must provide some benefit to the public. 'I do not think it can be assumed that remedying any and all forms of pollution always conveys a public benefit', wrote Carl Juneau, assistant director of the charities division. 'At the least, the possibility of countervailing detriment to the public has to be entertained and competing interests weighed. For example, closing down a polluting mill may make for a cleaner town and a healthier population, but it may also propel that population into poverty.'
It must have come as something of a shock to Greenpeace to be considered of no public benefit in its home country. However, the organisation made light of this decision. 'I don't think Greenpeace is going to be made a charitable organisation, and we seem to be doing okay without a charitable status', said Peter Tabuns, Greenpeace's Canadian executive director. Tabuns can be sanguine about the decision, since the financial dealings described by Revenue Canada suggest that Greenpeace's Canadian operations are increasingly being funded from its much richer European operation. Revenue Canada's decision will not cause a big cut in Greenpeace's global coffers, simply harm its reputation.
It will be interesting to see if the Canadian experience has any effect in Europe, where Greenpeace has most money and has mounted its most successful campaigns, and where politicians abhor confrontation with pressure groups. EU politicians are certainly not encouraged to challenge Greenpeace's scare tactics by business, which is becoming increasingly defensive, or by the media, which seem to thrive on scare stories. Perhaps we will have to wait for greater unrest to follow from Greenpeace-inspired environmental regulations before the EU authorities follow the Canadian government stand. As far as I'm concerned, restricting the influence of 'charitable' multinationals can't come soon enough.
Roger Bate is director of the European Science and Environment Forum, a science association based in Cambridge.
His latest co-edited book, Fearing Food: Risk, Health and Environment, is published by Butterworth Heinemann
Reproduced from LM issue 125, November 1999