Serving Those Who Serve the Greater Good


Serving Those Who Serve the Greater Good

I went to law school with the intention of working in the area of charities and not-for-profit law. I made that decision while working for a private foundation. I recognized that while I enjoyed being employed by charities, I wanted to develop technical expertise in order to bring greater value to the charitable sector. Many of the lawyers that I have met working in the charities and not-for-profit Bar report that they fell into the practice area, while others, like myself, have sought it out.

The Canadian non-profit and charitable sector accounted for 8.7% of Canada’s Gross Domestic Product in 2021, according to Imagine Canada. It’s a multi-billion-dollar sector, and the scope of service and expertise required to meet the needs of Canadian non-profits and charities is extensive. The sector includes numerous sub-sectors with diverse operational purposes, ranging from the provision of health care services and education, to land preservation and other environmental causes, artistic enterprises of all kinds, professional organizations, sporting, recreational and hobbyist groups, organizations working for the alleviation of poverty and “giving” ventures like public and private foundations. What ties this “sector” together is a shared regulatory environment and a mandate to serve the public benefit in some manner or other.

There may be more opportunities to take on values-driven work as a charities and not-for-profit lawyer than in other areas of legal practice. In general, at least on the solicitor side, it also tends to be a fairly low-conflict practice area. Organizations and people within the sector are accustomed to working together to leverage their strengths in furtherance of a shared goal or common charitable purposes. Clients who are technically adverse interest frequently are working to serve the same goal, objects, or beneficiaries. As such, serving clients in this context requires the lawyer to look out for the client’s best interest, while also working proactively to assist the “other side.” This dynamic can require delicate handling of all parties.

There are, of course, challenges to acting for charities and non-profits. For example, the clients in the charities and not-for-profit sector are occasionally less sophisticated than the clients a transactional lawyer might encounter. They may be volunteers or overtaxed employees working off the side of their desk, and some boards may be more transient than in the for-profit context. As a result, clients may require more ongoing support. In my experience, this can be jarring for some lawyers who are accustomed to working on fast-paced corporate transactions or in contentious corporate litigation. But the extra time and attention can make the work more rewarding, if you have the patience for it.

I find that serving charities and non-profit clients offers considerable intellectual rigour and reward. The issues that charities and non-profits face touch on numerous areas of legal practice ranging from gifting and trusts to corporate governance, tax and regulatory compliance, insurance-related matters, human rights issues, contracts, and employment. Charities, in particular, operate within a highly regulated environment under the Income Tax Act (Canada), and there are many “grey” areas concerning how those regulations may be applied and enforced by the Charities Directorate.

As a lawyer serving a diverse sector with certain common attributes, there are opportunities to become an expert in the recurrent issues that affect clients, while also regularly encountering novel issues and developing inventive solutions. Beyond the intellectual pursuit, the reward is that working for charities and non-profits helps those organizations to operate more effectively, and provides a stronger foundation for them to continue their mission-based work. It might even help amplify the good in the world, and that is quite special indeed.