The audit process for charities

As part of its ongoing efforts to make sure charities meet the requirements of registration, the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) audits about 1% of charities. This means the CRA audits about 800-900 registered charities across Canada each year. 

How is a charity selected for audit?

The most common reasons a charity will be selected for an audit are: 

  • random selection;
  • referral from another area of the CRA;
  • complaints from the public;
  • articles in the media or other publically available sources;
  • review of specific legal obligations under the Income Tax Act;
  • information from their T3010 annual information return; and
  • follow-up on a previous compliance agreement.

How does the CRA audit a charity?

There are two main types of audit: the field audit and the office audit. The size and complexity of a charity, as well as the issues involved, will often decide the type of audit required.

  • A field audit is done on the charity’s premises and usually lasts between three and five days. It will include examining the charity’s books and records such as bank accounts, contracts, governing documents, annual reports, board minutes, and other documents that relate to its activities. The auditors will interview the charity’s directors and ask questions about the charity’s activities. They may also want to tour the premises to better understand the transactions recorded in the books and to see the charity’s programs and activities in action.

  • An office audit is done by the Charities Directorate at CRA Headquarters, as opposed to at the charity’s place of business. Office audits are commonly used to make sure the charity is following the terms of a previous compliance agreement. The auditor will review the information and documents in the charity’s file. This may include its most recent governing documents, descriptions of its programs and activities, its annual information returns, and its financial statements. With an office audit, it is often necessary to contact the charity to get more information about its activities.

What happens when the audit is finished?

When the CRA has finished its audit, it will send the charity a letter outlining the results.

If the charity’s operations and all its activities are in line with the Act, the CRA will confirm in writing that there will be no change to the charity’s registered status.

When the audit uncovers that the charity is not following the Act, the CRA will send the charity a letter that:

  • outlines in detail each of the CRA’s concerns;

  • gives its preliminary view of whether the charity needs to take corrective actions or whether the non-compliance warrants imposing sanctions or revoking or annulling the charity’s registration; and

  • gives the charity the chance to make representations before the CRA comes to a final decision.

Generally, the CRA gives a charity 30 days to reply to its concerns, although the charity can request an extension.

What types of letters might a charity receive after it has been audited?

The CRA takes an education-first approach. This means it will generally give the charity the chance to correct its non‑compliance through education or a compliance agreement before it resorts to other measures such as sanctions or revocation. Only a very small proportion of the CRA’s audits result in serious consequences like sanctions or revocation.

The facts of the charity’s case will determine which of the following compliance approaches the CRA will take: 

  • Education letters: When the non-compliance is minor, the CRA will send an education letter. The letter will identify where the charity has not followed the law and will offer guidance to the charity so that it can make the required changes. An education letter does not adversely affect the charity’s registration, and the charity does not have to reply to the letter.
     
  • Compliance agreements: In cases of moderate non-compliance, the Charities Directorate may suggest entering into a compliance agreement with the charity. A compliance agreement outlines the non-compliance issues and the remedial actions that the charity has agreed to take, sets out the timelines for the necessary changes, and outlines the consequences if the charity does not follow the agreement. The CRA will follow up to make sure the charity is acting according to the agreement.
     
  • Sanctions: In cases of serious or repeat non-compliance, the CRA may propose imposing a sanction (financial penalties or the temporary suspension of the charity’s tax receipting privileges or both). The CRA may also propose imposing a sanction when the charity has been found to be disregarding the terms of its compliance agreement.
     
  • Revocation of registration: When the CRA finds a serious case of non-compliance, it will propose revoking the charity’s registered status. Although the CRA usually uses revocation as a last resort, under the Act the CRA can revoke a charity’s registration at any time, when it is appropriate. This includes situations where:
    • the non-compliance is serious and intentional;
    • the non-compliance has had a substantial, adverse effect on others (beneficiaries, donors, or funders); or
    • the charity had a previous record of serious non-compliance or cannot or will not follow the rules.

A charity whose registration is revoked must dispose of its assets within one year to other charities or pay a 100% revocation tax on any assets remaining. This tax helps make sure the funds donated for charitable purposes stay in the charitable sector.

  • Annulment of registration: In rare cases, an audit may find that a charity was not established and operated for exclusively charitable purposes when it was registered, or a change of law has caused it to no longer qualify as a charity. Although the CRA is obligated to remove the charity’s registration because it should never have been registered, it may be unfair to penalize it by applying the revocation tax to any assets it has accumulated. In such cases, the Act allows the CRA to propose to annul the charity’s registration. A charity whose registration is annulled can no longer issue tax receipts, but it can keep its assets.

For information on how the CRA makes its decision on which approach to take, see Procedures in Guidelines for applying sanctions.

What recourse does a charity have during and after an audit?

As mentioned earlier, the charity is given the chance to make representations to the CRA. The charity’s response may include explaining why it disagrees with the CRA’s position, including giving more information or proposing changes to satisfy the CRA’s concerns.

The CRA will fully consider the charity’s representations and make a determination on the appropriate compliance outcome. If, after considering the charity’s representations, the CRA finds it is reasonable to impose a sanction or annul or revoke the charity’s registration, it will send the charity a letter by registered mail outlining its decision.

When a charity receives one of these letters and believes the CRA has not interpreted the facts or applied the law correctly, it can object in writing to the Assistant Commissioner of the Appeals Branch at 250 Albert Street, Ottawa, Ontario  K1A 0L5. The charity must set out the reasons for the objection and all the relevant facts.

The charity has to file its objection no later than 90 days after the date of the final letter it got from the CRA. The Appeals Branch is responsible for the objection process, and its mandate is to review the decision fairly and transparently. If the charity disagrees with the CRA’s decision about its objection, it has the right to appeal to the Federal Court of Appeal or the Tax Court of Canada, depending on the type of appeal.

What audit information is available to the public?

As an exception to the general rules around taxpayer confidentiality, the Act allows certain information about charities to be released to the public. When the CRA revokes or annuls a charity’s registration or when it imposes a sanction, it posts this information in the Charities Listings. Under the Act, the CRA can release a copy of the letter(s) it sent to the charity outlining the reasons for its decision. This is to make sure the CRA’s decision about the charity is transparent.

Statistics – Outcome of audits

Revocation as a result of an audit is generally reserved for the most serious circumstances, including deliberate or repeat non-compliance. The most common reasons a registered charity will have its registration revoked include being involved in an abusive tax shelter arrangement, giving undue benefits, not issuing proper receipts, not keeping books and records, and not devoting its resources to its charitable activities.

Statistics on audit results compared by year
Outcomes 2013-2014 2014-2015 2015-2016
No change/no further action 112 55 40
Education letters issued 514 484 444
Compliance agreements 139 153 111
Voluntary revocations 20 16 22
Penalties/suspensions 5 7 4
Notices of Intention to Revoke issued* 36 45 21
Annulments 6 7 59
Other (includes other audit activities such as pre-registration and Part V audits) 13 14 25
Total 845 781 726
Revocations as a result of an audit** 24 23 20

*These figures include situations where the audit is finished and the CRA has proposed to revoke the charity’s registration, but may not yet have done so because there is a pending objection or appeal.

**These figures sit outside the fiscal year totals as they may relate to audits where a Notice of intention to revoke was issued in a previous fiscal year, and for which the charity has already exercised its right to file an objection and/or appeal to the CRA’s decision to revoke its registration.

Do you have comments on the audit?

If we have recently audited your charity, we would like to hear from you. Do you feel we properly informed you about the audit process? Did you find the process helpful in understanding your obligations as a registered charity under the Act?

Send your comments to:

Director, Compliance Division
Charities Directorate
Canada Revenue Agency
Ottawa ON  K1A 0L5

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