Societies, also known as “non-profits” or “not-for-profit corporations”, are the legal entities behind most of what goes on in the world of education.  For example, the Ubyssey, the University of British Columbia’s student newspaper, is the name of the central activity of a British Columbia society called The Ubyssey Publications Society.  This means the Society likely appears on the Ubyssey’s contracts and payroll slips.

The story of most societies usually begins something like this: a group of do-gooders want to do some particular good together, and they would prefer it if they could do this good as members of a collective that has a separate legal identity rather than as people who will be personally liable if something goes wrong.  They visit a lawyer and are given the option of incorporating a society under provincial or federal laws, and since educational issues are province-based more often than not a provincial society will be created.

The society might then try to take the step of becoming a charity, which means that not only have the do-gooders incorporated, but the Canada Revenue Agency has decided (after a rigorous application process) that their society should have the ability to issue donation receipts to someone who has contributed cash or property to the society’s operating budget.

Recently, the provincial government decided – rightly – that it should have another look at the main law that applies to provincial societies, the Society Act (BCLaws).  So, the Ministry of Finance started a consultation process, to see what was broken in the Society Act, what could be fixed and how that fix might play out, all with the recognition that the affairs and challenges of societies have changed much quicker than the Society Act has.  This is the purpose of the review:

The purpose of the review is to identify and address any legislative obstacles that may prevent societies from functioning fully and efficiently, and ensure that the public interest is being protected. We are seeking your input on any problems, gaps, inconsistencies or ambiguities in the Society Act and any reforms you would like considered. 

The review started at the end of 2009 (see this letter from the Deputy Minister of Finance), and since then many of the province’s 26,000 societies have chimed in with their thoughts. 

Then, in December 2011, the Ministry put out a Discussion Paper going through proposed amendments that arose because of the consultations with societies.  All of the amendments revolve around two basic issues:

  1. What corporate model is most appropriate for societies and, in particular, should a sophisticated business law framework be adopted?
  2. To what extent should the Society Act contain regulatory provisions or other rules that constrain the operation of societies?

Many of the proposals may sit well or poorly with societies in the educational community.  Student societies, like other societies with a very large constituency of members, should pay particular attention to the items on the table, such as the idea of introducing new remedies for members, special regulatory requirements for further financial disclosure and accountability and creative dispute resolution tools.

Societies and other stakeholders are invited to send their comments on the Discussion Paper by April 30, 2012 to fcsp@gov.bc.ca.

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