Wednesday, 30 November 2011


"Every good act is charity.  A [sic] man's true wealth hereafter is the good that he does in this world to his fellows."  Moliere
The holiday season is fast approaching, so I thought I'd write a blog entry on the dos and don't of giving 'charitable' gifts.  Making a charitable donation (of money, or of time) in someone's name can be a touching and treasured gesture, and can bring as much pleasure to the gift receiver as a more traditional gift, if done correctly. Many charities and non-profits also have catalogues and 'gift shops' that one can purchase items through, with part of the profit going towards their cause.   There are a few basic rules to follow, and a few guidelines that I would like to make you aware of.

Do a bit of thinking.  Figure out what you are willing to support, and what you aren't.  This is important.  Here are a few things to consider: 

1.  What are causes and organisations that you are interested in, and that you can support?
2.  What are the causes and organisations that interest the person you would like to make a gift to?
3.  Where do these overlap?  Where do they conflict?
4.  If there is no obvious overlap, then is there a way that you can find some commonality?
5.  Do you know what organisations and causes that the person you would like to honour does NOT want to be associated with?

Thoughtfulness really is the key to making a donation-gift treasured and appreciated.  Take the time to do a bit of research, and ask the people you love some questions.  Do some thinking about your own values as well.

Here are some questions and suggestions to get you started:

What percentage of a donation are you comfortable going towards administration fees? 

I am not going to get into the incredibly complex differences between Federal and Provincial laws (a charity can be registered either through Canada, or provincially in the case of Quebec).  By all means, explore some of the details here if you are interested.  I am also not going to get into legal or accounting terms. 

You do need to at least be aware of some of the 'business' practises of charities and non-profits if you are going to give thoughtful gifts.  There's a great discussion of the issues here, and I would encourage you to read it and think about the issues. 

My personal belief, having worked with charities and non-profits for years, is that up to 35% of funds donated to charities (NOT foundations) can be ethically spent on administrative fees, which must include salaries and employee benefits.  Charities and non-profits must provide their employees with a decent living if they are to maintain ethical integrity, and if they are to maintain consistency and reduce staff turnover.  HOWEVER, I would strongly argue that "a decent living" does not mean salaries in the hundreds of thousands, nor does it include huge bonuses. 

Be cautious with regards to foundations.  Some foundations (The United Way for instance) does amazing work, and is responsible for supporting a great many wonderful charities and non-profit groups.  However, corporate foundations (yup, another upcoming blog entry) may eat away at your donation by redundant administrative fees - part of your donation supports the corporate foundation (said foundation providing not only publicity for the corporation but also a tax break), which then gives what's left of your donation to a charity, which also has administrative fees.  Each foundation you are interested in needs to be vetted, and you need to make your own choice.  If you are interested in donating to a corporate foundation, you also need to research the corporation in order to avoid green washing (yes, another upcoming blog - oh my!) and the support of shady practises.  My personal choice is to donate directly to a group I want to support.  Know how you feel about this issue, and know how your gift receiver feels.   

Charities, foundations,  and non-profits should be willing to answer basic questions regarding administrative costs, and be willing to provide you with links to, or copies of, the financial statements from their last general meeting.  I would encourage you to contact any charity/non-profit PRIOR to donation, and ask this (and other) questions, both in order to provide you with the information and (just as important) to provide tangible proof to the charity in question that donors are actively concerned about these issues.

What types of activities are you willing to support?  What types of activities are supported by the person you are honouring?

Learn a little about the charity that you are considering donating to.  What, exactly, do they do and why?  What are their policies?  Do they answer your questions? (Ethical charities and non-profits will be willing to answer your questions, and if the person you speak with is not knowledgeable enough to answer your question, s/he should either find out the answer and get back to you or refer you to someone else within the group.)  

Do they have a sustainable, long term view that attempts to deal with causal factors (for instance, groups that try to save endangered species through eradicating the poverty and environmental degradation that often threatens species)? Do they only deal with short-term relief (for instance, food banks)?  Do they have a two-pronged approach which targets short-term relief as well as long term causation?  How do you feel about these approaches (and your view may differ from cause to cause). 

Do they treat their donors with respect?  Do they accept dedicated funds?  Do they refuse to accept funds under a specified amount? If the group only accepts non-dedicated

If they are collecting money for research into a disease, where does this money go?  "Towards research" is far too general.  Do you, or the person you hope to honour, have concerns about the use of animals in medical research?  If so, then you need to ask about the policies regarding this issue.  Will research be conducted using pharmaceutical companies, or will pharmaceutical companies benefit from the resulting drugs created with research you are funding?  Who will own the patent?  These are things you should think about.

Be prepared.

The best way of knowing what to give to whom, is to have the conversation - early if possible.  For instance, my mother-in-love has stated that she would like donations made in honour of her to go to "anything that helps children".  This makes giving a charitable gift in her honour extremely easy.   People like me, who have worked in non-profits, may have more discriminating requirements for the charities they support.  For gifts that honour people like me, you need to discuss things in more detail.  For instance, I am a vegan and have supported a number of causes that range from social justice and antipoverty issues, to environmental and endangered animal groups. 

To assume, however, that any gift given to a group that works in one of these fields would honour me would be a mistake.  The World Wildlife Fund, which I have supported over the years, has recently 'partnered' with Coca-Cola, accepting $2 million to be received over the next five years, to be used to help protect polar bear habitat.  This looks like a good thing on the surface - however, I am concerned with a number of issues surrounding this (yes, subject of a future blog).  I presently choose not to support WWF, while I research the issues and inform myself.    

Most people will be more than happy to have this type of discussion with you.  Honestly, most people have already wrestled, at least to some degree, with some of the issues I have raised and have a few charities or causes that they feel drawn to.  Don't forget to periodically revisit the discussion with people you love, to see if their 'pet' charities have changed.

Be honest if there is a conflict.

If, for instance, someone asks me to donate to The Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation, I would explain, politely and respectfully, that I would be unable to send them money as I had a number of ethical concerns with the group.  I would then offer to do some research into breast cancer groups and come back to them with a list of groups that I could support, and have them choose one.  I could also, if they preferred, donate to another group that they supported.  While the donation I am giving in someone's name is meant to honour him/her, it still has to be a group that I can give to without feeling ethically compromised.  If you are respectful and supportive of the giftee's right to support a group, then s/he should understand. 

The world is full of wonderful organisations that do incredible work.  I urge you to think about charitable gifts over the holiday season, and to have conversations through-out the year with those that you love.

Here are a few links to get you started (If I have any links to the group, I will tell you within the parentheses, in the spirit of full disclosure - and you still  have to ask them questions if you want to donate to them):

  The Jane Goodall Institute of Canada  (I worked for this organisation while it was located in Montreal.  Great gifts for those interested in Chimpanzees, in sustainable tourism, in animal welfare, in providing sustainable jobs for those in African communities surrounding chimp sanctuaries, for helping to support research and eco-viability in Gombe National Park, and for those interested in fostering leadership in youths in Canada.)
Fondation Senegal Sante Mobile  (Wonderful group just getting started - I have volunteered with them, and know the founding member quite well.  Great for anyone interested in maternal or neonatal health, in health care in Africa, in helping to reduce infant death and morbidity as well as increase health status of infants and mothers, as well as the whole community, in social justice and access to health care.)
Project Genesis  (I am on the Board of Directors.  While their website is not updated as often as it should be, this group does amazing work with regards to housing rights, welfare and pension rights, social justice, antipoverty, etc.)
Baobab Familial (I am in my second term on their Board, and am the Vice-President  of the Board of Directors.  Unfortunately, their website is only in French at present.  This group does amazing work with new immigrants to Quebec, providing enrichment programmes for children as well as tutoring, free babysitting for stay-at-home parents in order to reduce their isolation in a new country, translators for doctor's visits, French lessons, etc.  Great charity for anyone interested in community, social justice, isolation, children's education.)
AIDS Community Care Montreal  (I have been a volunteer and consultant for ACCM for a number of years now.)  ACCM is the only English language HIV/AIDS education/prevention/support group in Montreal.  They do incredible work with people of all ages.  This is a great group to give to for someone who is interested in HIV/AIDS prevention, patient advocacy, education, support, and fighting discrimination.
The Heifer Foundation (I have given gifts through this organisation in the past.  Great group for those interested in fighting hunger, in fighting poverty, in child education.  If you are giving a donation in honour of a vegan, then be sensitive.  You can 'give a tree', or if your vegan does not object honey, you can 'give a bee hive'.)
Breast Cancer Action Montreal (This is an example of a group that fights breast cancer, and that may be a suitable recipient for donations made in honour of someone who has problems with The Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation.)

The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine  (This organisation is not a good choice for everyone.  Focusing on the healing and preventative role that a balanced vegan diet can play in good health, and in treating and preventing a number of diseases, this group not only conducts research, but also promotes veganism and responsible medical practises.  A great choice for vegans, vegetarians, those interested in animal rights, those who feel that medicine and medical research is frequently controlled by big business and lobbyists.)

Save Our Coastal Fishery (This non-profit should be familiar, from my last blog entry - Nov. 27, 2011.  This group is fighting open-pen salmon farming in Atlantic Canada, and fights to protect the coastline and lobster fishers from toxic chemicals and pollution caused by this practise.)

Food Banks Canada  (While this group attempts to provide short-term relief to hunger in Canada rather than a long-term solution/s or a two-pronged approach, I can tell you from personal experience that food banks offer a critical service in this country.  For more information, you can scroll down to the blog archives and look at the second blog entry I made, entitled "Hunger".)

The Slave Lake Library Fund  (For more information, please scroll down to my blog archives and see the third blog entry, entitled "For the Love of Books".)

Thinking Forward (I have had only limited contact with this group which involved some base and preliminary suggestions regarding their volunteer programme.  I have, however, agreed to serve as a consultant when they are large enough to need me.  This is a great group for those interested in youth development, in leadership training, and in fostering civic involvement.)


I hope that the above has given you something to think about, and provides you with information regarding the how-tos of giving gifts that continue to give.  Let me know of any other groups/organisations that you feel are deserving, and I will be happy to list them in a follow-up blog entry.

Happy Giving! 

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