Thinking about charity

It seems that every year, this discussion goes around my social media groups a couple of times.
It involves charity groups, and the dark underbelly that seems to surround the possibility of getting people to give away money.

I have talked about charity donations in a previous blog post, asking people – How do you decide who/what charities and events to donate to? –with very limited response (Thanks Shawn).  My biggest purpose then was more meant to try and engage people with a question – what factors do you use when deciding who to donate money to?
That blog post concentrated on the big ticket items – my friends that do the Terry Fox run, MS walk, and are parts of big name charity fundraising events.  My wife and I give over a thousand dollars a year to charity – mostly Cancer related (for obvious reasons), but I also make a point of giving to:

  1.  those close to me who are in events that have impacted them greatly, and
  2.  those that have supported my fundraising events (such as the Bladder Cancer walk).

Sometimes I feel like many people just drop the money in whatever box they feel like and then they can state, “I did something”. That table at the grocery store, or the booth at the show/market/fair that is there fundraising.
The sad part is that the majority of donations are made that way. Even sadder is that a number of those people/groups usually end up giving their money to someone/something that results in very little of their funds making it into the hands of those they claim to support.
But hey – it is not your fault.  You donated, and did your part for the greater good – right?

Fundraising is very binary for some passionate people.  We have seen when someone fundraises several thousand dollars for something, there will be some group that complains.  For example – in 2015, staff at the High Level Diner in Edmonton raised over $20k to sponsor a Syrian Immigrant family.  Local social media was abuzz – why didn’t they give that money to ……… (insert their charity here).

My response to many of those that complained was simple, these people have donated intentionally to support a cause they wish to support.  You cannot dictate what people do with THEIR OWN MONEY.  If you feel so passionate about (insert your charity name here), why don’t you organize a fundraiser for it yourself.

So, now I have argued both sides of the coin – many of you are thinking “WTF, what is your point?”

Here is my pickle – while I agree that people have every right to donate as they see fit, I believe that people need to put more effort into selecting where their money goes.  The lack of caring is what makes the “less honourable among us” have greater opportunity to make money for themselves.  Remember the saying – “sucker born every minute, whole new crop next year”.

Here is my discussion point –
There are a number of groups that are not completely on the up and up.  But enough people will drop 5-10 bucks into a donation jar without paying attention to make it a quite lucrative venture.
Due to my experience with fundraising and not-for-profits, I have collected some of the key factors to look into or think about.

Here is a thing that sends up a flag – is the name similar to another big charity?  Is it that big charity or not?
example – at the recent motorcycle shows in Alberta a booth was there for “Our Wounded Warriors”, quick glance when I walked by, my first thought was “Wounded Warriors”.  Looked again – nope.  Around here we also have “Wounded Warrior Weekend”.  Sounds like they could get mixed up pretty easy, and you would expect that there is some connection.

Digging into “Our Wounded Warriors” finds that it is just another name for a company that sells stuff and donates proceeds to “Veteran charities”.  Not wrong, but not clear either.
Wounded Warriors is a BIG charity in the States and a pretty good size in Canada too.  As I said – you know you have heard of them, might not remember where – but you heard of them, so it would make sense you can drop that money in the jar and feel good about it.
3 groups, similar names – how easily could a person jump to the conclusion that they are connected.

But, they aren’t. Not even a little bit.  But, you heard the name, so it gave you comfort.  Does anyone else remember the Eddie Murphy movie from the 80s, “A distinguished Gentleman” where someone uses the name and people don’t look any further.  Yes, it happens.

Wounded Warriors is mostly known for aggressive legal attacks in the USA on groups that try to make a name for themselves too close to the Wounded Warrior brand name.  Similar to the Royal Canadian Legion and the poppy – isn’t it.  Many people have heard of Wounded Warriors – nobody remembers exactly why, but they heard of them.

Well, Wounded Warriors is also in the news south of 49 for concerns that their financial numbers show possible mismanagement of funds.  Red Cross and a number of other charities end up in the news for the same things.  But it’s a big charity, worth supporting – so that’s easy.  Maybe not.

The tables and booths you see at shows and fairs that are fundraising for any number of programs.  Take a moment to look at the language used.  If they state “charitable”… doesn’t mean they are a charity.  If they state “proceeds support”….it doesn’t mean that your full donation goes to the cause – it means something slightly different.

One of the big flags for me, knowing what I know, is if they are registered or not.  Federal and Provincial laws are pretty straightforward on this one.  Public databases are available to list Federally and Provincially registered Not-for-profit groups, which is step one towards CRA charity status.  Yes, you can research all charities too.  Here are some examples of what information you can get.

Wounded Warriors Canada on the CRA database

Bladder Cancer Canada on the CRA database

CRA Charity status is a big one – if they are a registered CRA charity, they can issue tax receipts so that you get some of your donation back from the government at tax time.
Just because a group isn’t able to give tax receipts isn’t a bad thing.  CRA status is a huge paperwork hurdle that takes a couple years of operations to work through, but to get to CRA status, you need to start as a registered group.  I work with a few groups, and one is going to start working towards CRA status, I am helping them with that.  If you think that paperwork is a challenge – have a look at raffle licence applications.  The application process alone probably drives most away.

One of the biggest pitfalls with unregistered groups (and there are a lot of them) is that there is NO accountability.  I actually belong to an unregistered group……  Well – even that’s a loose term, no dues, no expectations, no attendance, no requirements – other than what you require to join.  This unregistered group fundraises for a local Veterans facility.   In order to maintain their accountability, they are big on things like Cheque presentations – big novelty cheques that photos get posted on social media to state – look at what we are doing.
The accountability problem – nobody looks at the books.  The good news – this group doesn’t raise a ton of cash, and every penny (more than I thought they made) was donated.

Which is another thing to look for – do they have a Facebook page? are the social media outlets of the groups that they support talking about them?
That is a key point for charitable groups and fundraisers – Groups need to make sure that they scream from the rooftops about the people who support them.  If a company gives a donation, tell the world how awesome that company is – then if they get supported more, business is good so more donations/support could follow.  That’s the point of sponsors and donors – it is marketing dollars, if you as a charity are able to show good value, then they might donate/sponsor a greater value next time.  It could be a really good circle.  So if nobody is talking about an organization on social media, and the group that supposedly received funds isn’t shouting about the awesome level of support….. should it raise an eyebrow?  It doesn’t mean the donation/support didn’t happen, but it makes me sigh.

Here are a couple other things to think about.

When a group says “they support Veterans”, they probably aren’t outright lying to you.  An example of could be a webpage that looks for donations to support Veterans.  Upon further investigation, it is actually a seniors center, that has a couple of Veterans at their facility.  The funds raised develop programs at this seniors center, of which the Veterans can partake.  So, they didn’t blatantly lie.  They just stretched the story to suit the purpose.  Authors note: This is a real story that crossed my path last year… message me for the long story if you really want to know.

Other fundraising stories that aren’t outright lies – is when you see someone talking about “proceeds from sales” or similar wording like that.  They are mostly likely a for-profit business that sells products, and donates a portion of the company profits to charitable causes.  Sounds great – but, that means after the sales guy gets his paycheck, and all the other company bills are paid – part of what is left goes to a charity or charitable cause.  Noble effort – but no accountability on how much of your funds actually make it to those supported.
These companies, are mostly legitimate ventures, but they use the “charitable” aspect as an avenue to drive an increase in sales.

When a fundraiser says “supports Cancer charities”, do you know which ones?
If it is intentionally left vague – why?  I have harped on a couple major Cancer  Foundations that want my donation money.  When I dig into a little bit of google – or just ask them –  they don’t actually do anything to support the Cancer I am dealing with.  They want to spend the money you give the way they want – not towards what you want.

Anyone surprised that I didn’t give them money?

We see the same thing with Kids and Veterans charities.  Everyone wants to support the kids – but my questions are what kids, where, and what are you doing for them?  If they can’t answer the basic questions about what a charity or fundraising group does with the money – not likely to get mine.

I could drone on, but I think most of you get the point by now.  It is pretty easy to see how people can cheat the system in the name of fundraising.

Some of you now are saying – Fine, I won’t donate to anyone – are you happy now!?

But that isn’t my point.

What I want is for people to think more before they donate.
Know the charity genre you want to support, and look around it for a bit.
Even Cancer charities/fundraising is not immune from shysters – many groups get accused of “pink washing”, you know that one – sell something pink, proceeds go to Breast Cancer – but you can never really find out how much goes to the charity.  A couple big groups have been found to be stretching the rules there too.

Even the small groups get screwed over by people with less than optimum morals – a ride I supported a couple of years ago, just a group of people with good intentions, but unregistered and unregulated – one person absconded with thousands of dollars.  They can’t be charged, as there was no rules they officially broke – they just didn’t need to be accountable to anyone, so away they went.  I gave my money to the group willingly, I didn’t know that they were disorganized.  I could really blather on about why organizations needs structure and agreements ….. but maybe I turn that into a course, or it could be another blog post.
would anyone pay me $20 bucks for 4 hours of being taught stuff like this?

My point is –
Donate, and donate smart.
Find a handful of groups you want to support and donate money to them.
Donate to support your friends.
Be more critical of people who are set up to only need 10 seconds of your time for a donation (as many times anything more than 20 seconds may uncover something fishy).
Start demanding accountability of the charity groups you support.  If they aren’t willing to show some transparency in their fundraising – maybe they have something to hide.

The only reason we have so many groups that are taking advantage of the system, is that it is an easy system to take advantage of.

If we could just get more people thinking critically about the who/what/how they donate their money, we would actually see better results from the money spent.
If people were more critical of groups dancing around the issues of registration, charitable status, and where the money goes, less shysters would try to get the money.

So, if you think that this was a good lesson to learn, please spread the word through social media, you can email this blog post around to people who could afford to learn this too.

Most of all, thanks for reading and sharing.