Changes & the charitable sector

When I tell people I grew up in West Kelowna, the question that often follows is, “You must have seen a lot of change, eh?” And indeed it’s very true. When I attended Westbank Elementary, there was no couplet highway, mega-stores or double-laned highway to the Lower Mainland. For sure, the one constant is change.

During 15 years working in the local charitable sector, much more has changed, and I regularly hear common sentiments and questions about donating; most frequently:


1.  “How can you ask for money? I could never do that job!”

Contrary to what it may seem like, working with donors is actually one of the greatest delights of my role. I believe fundraising practices such as cold-calling, door-to-door solicitations, and point-of-sale fundraising at cashiers have left a bad impression about charity for some. When giving becomes associated with pressure tactics, guilt and arm-twisting, it is no longer philanthropy.

We used to think of philanthropists as very wealthy tycoons who invested large sums into community, such as the Rockefellers or Vanderbilts. However, philanthropy comes from Latin roots that simply mean “love for humankind”, so when anyone gives of their time, talent or treasure to make the world a better place, they are practicing philanthropy. In the past 50 years, we have seen a huge increase in the percentage of the population who practice philanthropy through charitable giving in all amounts, and it truly is an honour to work with them to facilitate their goals in supporting our community.


2.  “Shouldn’t the government pay for these services? I pay enough in taxes.”

Certainly there has been a lot of change in recent decades with what used to be government programs now being operated or partially supported by the efforts of the charitable sector. There has been a huge rise in the need for services plus increasingly higher costs to provide expected service levels. Perhaps the most obvious example of this is in our hospitals, where the current costs of tests and treatments outstrips our tax base’s ability to pay for it all; thus the rise in fundraising campaigns to provide specialized equipment, research, and support services.

I once heard it said that charitable giving was the truest expression of democracy, and find this point very valid. We can vote with our dollars to invest in programs and services that we feel are most valuable and important for our society.


3.   “What about overhead? How much of my donation is reaching the people it needs to?”

Today’s donors are gaining an understanding of how charities work and of fundraising practices, and they want to ensure there is no waste. This is completely understandable, especially when one hears rumours about the cut a professional fundraising agency takes off the top of a phone call campaign, or a charitable executive earning what seems like a staggering salary.

However, I would caution that simply looking at so-called “fundraising ratios” doesn’t tell the whole picture of what a charity does. For example, if a charity primarily offers speech language therapy to children, the vast majority of their costs are going to be in professional salaries to deliver those services. Is a speech language pathologist “overhead”? There are no strict guidelines or rules for how charities report their expenses, so some might report their professional staff as “administration” and some might classify them as “program expenses”, and this could give a very skewed view of that charity’s expense ratios.

On the other hand, our community is very accustomed to supporting charities through fundraising events and galas, when in fact these types of programs often have the worst return on investment going!

Remember that overhead is part of the cause; no charity would be able to fulfil its mission without basic infrastructure to conduct business. The vast majority of Canadian charities run very efficiently and strive to keep their expenses to a minimum (sometimes even to their detriment!). You can also inform yourself by visiting the Canada Revenue Agency’s Charities Directorate online to review any registered charity’s tax filing. Don’t believe or perpetuate outlandish emails and gossip about a charity; if you have any concerns about a charity’s practices, simply ask them.


Article submitted by: Marla O’Brien

Marla O’Brien started as the Executive Director of the United Way of the Central and South Okanagan Similkameen in August 2012.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

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About the Author

The mission of United Way is to improve lives and build community by engaging individuals and mobilizing collective action.

We call this our Community Impact Mission. Community impact is about achieving meaningful, long-term improvements to the quality of life in Canadian communities, by addressing not just the symptoms of problems but also getting at the root causes. It’s about making fundamental changes to community conditions.

United Way is achieving this mission by moving people from poverty to possibility, promoting healthy people and strong communities, and supporting all that kids can be.

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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