Representatives of charities large and small take you behind the scenes
By Lola Augustine Brown
Whether sponsoring a child abroad, dropping money into the collection at church, undertaking a sponsored bungee-jump, or bequeathing funds to a charitable organization, Canadians are generous to causes. Statistics Canada reports that 88 per cent of us donate to charities and not-for-profit organizations.
Our relationship with charities can be complicated, however. More than ever, charities need our support, but they understand that we may not always appreciate how we are asked to donate, or how often. We talked to charities across the country, big and small, to discuss the concerns they know the public has about how they operate, and what they wish you knew about running a charity in Canada.
Not every cent of donations can go directly to those in need.
Naturally, if you give $100 to help children in need, you’d like to think that every cent of that money is going directly to the children. It can be discouraging when we hear about operating costs and what we perceive to be high salaries of those working at charities.
Kathy Motton, director of communications and marketing for Childhood Cancer Canada (childhoodcancer.ca), says that is a message she often hears. “There’s so much involved in being able to deliver programs, and it’s very difficult to get 100 per cent of funds to a cause,” she says. “Often smaller foundations like ours have a lower cents-to-cause ratio, and that can make it seem that we are less efficient, but that isn’t necessarily true. That ratio may in fact show that our need is greater—larger organizations often have big corporate sponsors who help with a lot of their operational costs, such as office space and Internet.”
It costs money to raise money and to deliver programs.
Volunteers may be the lifeblood of charitable organizations, but paid staff are vital—many programs wouldn’t be able to run without them. Childhood Cancer Canada is dedicated to saving, enhancing, and extending the lives of kids with cancer. Part of the monies it raises helps fund cancer research, but the funds also go to programs that help sick kids have VIP experiences at concerts and ball games, provide backpacks with tablets and age-appropriate books to help them understand cancer, provide post-secondary scholarships for survivors, and help parents with costs (“One in five children don’t survive cancer beyond five years, which is a pretty stark number, and often parents have had to give up work to care for their child,” Motton says). In most cases, delivering programs at this level requires skill and time-commitments that can be met only by salaried professionals.
And about those salaries: “Nobody enters this sector to make lots of money; we enter the sector to have an impact,” says Joanna Kerr, president and CEO of MakeWay (makeway.org), a national charity that supports hundreds of environmental and community projects across Canada. Kerr was previously executive director of Greenpeace and held director roles with ActionAid and Oxfam—for CEO level professionals looking for the highest salaries, the corporate world is a much better fit than the charity and not-for-profit sphere.
“We have the same bills any business has,” says Mike MacDonald, executive director of the Upper Room Hospitality Ministry (urhm.org) in Charlottetown, which operates a soup kitchen and food bank. “We have to pay to keep the lights on and the heat, we need insurance, we have to buy a vehicle to deliver groceries to clients and other food banks.” MacDonald says that his organization is constantly looking for ways to save money. “When we buy food, we are doing it as economically as we can, and believe me we are very frugal. I agonize over our budgets and things like whether we should invest in a new freezer. We get a lot of food donated, especially non-perishable items, but having cash donations enables us to round out the groceries we can give with fresh produce or chicken and beef.”
Many charities, particularly smaller ones such as the Canadian Animal Assistance Team (CAAT, caat-canada.org), which provides care to cats and dogs, including spaying and nurturing programs, both in Canada and abroad, use a platform such as CanadaHelps, which facilitates online donations and gives charities access to the tech they need to reach potential donors. There’s a fee for using these platforms, which is taken directly from the donation, but CAAT executive director Chris Robinson says that being able to use the platform has been invaluable to the organization, which has no paid employees. Even larger charities often employ an administrative service providing legal and human resources support that can amount to a fair percentage of annual operational costs but that a team of volunteers can’t usually handle.
Kerr says there are more demands on charities than ever before, all of which require specialist support. “The complexity of running charities has grown in terms of legal and financial obligations, including protecting people’s data and maintaining compliance with the Canadian Revenue Agency,” Kerr says.
Given all this, charities want you to know that every dollar makes a difference in changing people’s lives in ways that you may not even consider. For example, when you sponsor one child through World Vision, you affect the lives of other children in that community, says Kathryn Goddard, vice-president of products and channels for World Vision Canada. “Our research shows that for every child sponsored, four children benefit. Some amazing things have happened through child sponsorship, with those children growing up to become teachers and doctors, who are then able to become leaders in their community.”
How much charities spend on their operations is strictly monitored.
Every cent a charity spends has to be accounted for, if not to a board of trustees and donors, then certainly to the CRA. The Income Tax Act clearly sets out requirements for registered charities and other qualified donees, and they have to report annually to the CRA, which monitors their activities.
“Checking the charity status on the CRA website is a good indicator that a charity is legitimate,” says CRA spokesperson Chris Doody. “For public transparency purposes, when a charity is registered, or when the CRA imposes a sanction, or annuls or revokes a charity’s registration, the CRA publishes this information in its list of charities.” (You can search any charity by going to the CRA website, typing “list of charities” in the search bar and clicking the link provided.)
Since different organizations have different operational costs, Doody says there’s no defined maximum amount of donated money that can be used for the administration costs. “The CRA would evaluate the funds allocated to management and administration on a case-by-case basis,” Doody says. “Charities are permitted to spend money on other activities that further their charitable purposes such as fundraising or administration. However, such amounts must be reasonable compared to the amounts spent on charitable programs.”
Charities realize that there are a lot of people asking for money right now.
“I know that people really dislike that so many charities are asking for money, but right now, especially with COVID and the devastation we are just starting to see in the developing world, the need to fundraise is greater than it’s ever been,” Goddard says.
Charities know there’s a lot of pressure on donors, and the way World Vision Canada is trying to address that is by being more specific in whom they ask. Charitable organizations know that donor relationships work best when people support projects that align with their values, and that donors get the most back from those relationships (let’s face it, giving enriches our own lives, too).
It’s perfectly acceptable to say no or to say that you already support a certain charity or cause. What’s key for charities is to connect with the right donors and build those relationships, something that is much harder now that in-person events have become so difficult.
COVID-19 has increased reliance on charities and lowered charitable donations.
“For the last year, our need has been increasing significantly, even before COVID,” MacDonald says. “March, April, May, and June were crazy months, and it basically took everything for us just to keep up. There’s a lot of need, and we anticipate that continuing as we go through the pandemic.”
Childhood Cancer Canada realized that families of kids with cancer were struggling financially even more than usual and quickly applied for government community grants that enabled them to give out payments of $250 to families. Charities everywhere are working on strategies to help deal with these new issues and those that are likely to arise.
COVID-19 has also taken away the ability of many organizations to connect with donors. World Vision Canada had many fundraising events in churches—those came to a halt. CAAT did local events such as dog shows.
Childhood Cancer Canada relied on several large fundraising events— including the National Kids Cancer Ride—that they had to cancel. “We had to get creative, taking our fundraising online, and created the Breakaway Cycling Adventure, where participants could register and earn badges for undertaking challenges of various difficulty and getting sponsored to do so,” Motton says. “It was hugely successful and integrated with people’s social media accounts so that they could share all the fun they were having.” This raised more than $72,000, and the organization is planning on continuing next year even if in-person events can take place. The ability of organizations to find new ways to raise funds is vital to their survival, so you can expect to see many more fundraisers going online.
Marketing is essential, and charities know that not everyone likes the fact.
One common complaint that charities hear from the public is that they don’t like opening a magazine or seeing a TV ad that makes them feel guilty. However, organizations need to get their message across and they’re walking a bit of a tightrope when it comes to relaying their messages.
“There’s a need for charities to balance the realities of the world and the hope of what life could be. What we do at World Vision is try to tell our stories in an authentic and raw way that gets people to see things in a different light,” Goddard says. “An example is the Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh, which is the biggest refugee camp in the world. Unless Canadians see the reality of what people face there, they won’t understand. We need to get them to imagine how it must be to live there in this cramped space with hundreds of thousands of other people. Our job as fundraisers is to tell those stories and get people to see these issues in a different light that isn’t too packaged and glossy, so they can see it in an authentic way.”
Small donations have a large effect.
MacDonald says that small donations make a huge difference to his organization. “Our Upper Room Angels program is based on people giving a dollar a week—$52 a year—and has a very loyal following. In the 34 years that we’ve been running this fundraiser, it’s raised $2.5 million to support our programs,” MacDonald explains. “We feel that the program has a high donor retention rate because it is such a manageable amount for most people.”
“Even a monthly donation of $25 or $50 makes a big difference and that’s something we’re trying to encourage through our CAAT Paw Partners program,” Robinson says.
Money isn’t the only thing you can donate.
Volunteering is always going to be essential, so giving your time is a great way to help.
“Running a food bank is very labour-intensive—there’s so much food coming in and being moved, there’s no way that we could do this work without our team of volunteers,” MacDonald says. “Without volunteers, our staff would be burned out and we couldn’t deliver our services.” If you want to volunteer but are worried about the time commitment, many organizations really don’t ask for much. MacDonald says there are volunteers who offer three hours of their time every couple of weeks.
Many organizations have volunteer roles with even smaller time commitments. Childhood Cancer Canada has various board and committee roles that require volunteers, and these may carry a commitment of a few hours every few months, with meetings now being run virtually since COVID so you needn’t even leave home to participate.
CAAT benefits greatly from people donating Aeroplan points, which helps mitigate the costs of flying vets and veterinary assistants to the communities where it runs its programs. “A lot of people aren’t travelling right now, and we’ll happily take their Aeroplan points and bank them for when we can get out there and help again,” Robinson says (visit caat-canada.org to find out how).
Giving can also be a strategic part of your estate planning, as legacy gifts are a highly effective way of reducing taxes. Many larger charities have financial planners that they can connect you with to help maximize your gift and give you the best advantage.
There are many ways to give, and Canada’s charities are grateful to those who can give, no matter how much or in what form.