Do your homework in advance of giving cash this holiday season
Gale Stewart had spent 10 years as a foster parent when she finally couldn’t take it anymore—not the job itself but the fact that so many kids were instantly dropped from government care the day they turned 19, with no support network to turn to. Some of them found their way, but others ended up pursuing prostitution, drugs, or crime.
In 1988, Stewart founded Aunt Leah’s Place, a nonprofit organization that helps youth in foster care transition to independent living. There is more demand for its services now than ever.
“When you look at the homeless situation in the Lower Mainland, 65 percent of the homeless population in Vancouver…self-identify as foster children,” Stewart says on the line from her New Westminster office. “You need to treat these children like parented homes treat their children; when they’re 19, you don’t say, ‘Fine, you can’t come home anymore.’
“At 19, there are no support services for them,” she adds. “The myth is that the years up to then have been consistent, but they haven’t. Most people at Aunt Leah’s have been through four, five, six, seven foster homes before they come here….It’s important that all children be supported past 19, but I’d make a case just from a social-justice point of view that these children are entitled to it.”
Aunt Leah’s is just one of hundreds of local charities that rely on donations to function. With the holidays here, more and more people are choosing gifts that support charitable organizations as opposed to those that come from a store.
Aunt Leah’s was also chosen as one of the country’s top charitable organizations for 2012 by Charity Intelligence Canada (CI). A registered nonprofit group, it researches charities across the country to help donors decide where to direct their money. It doesn’t make recommendations but helps people better understand the foundations they support and how those organizations spend donor dollars by making its findings available on its website.
“A lot of donors are…inundated with requests for funding on an ongoing basis,” says Bri Trypuc, CI’s donor advisor, in a phone interview from her Toronto office. “The news tends to highlight the scandals and frauds [within the charitable sector], which are few and far between, but, unfortunately, these scandals tend to taint the whole sector. Donors don’t become as confident or have as much trust in charity and are starting to ask questions. That’s actually really a good thing, because we want to see more transparency and accountability in this sector.
“It’s really important to stop and do your homework,” she adds. “Canadians are very generous. In 2010, Canadians gave $8.2 billion in tax-receipted donations….You do have to give from your heart; generosity comes from within. But you have to engage your mind as well. You want to have confidence that…a charity needs your money and will spend it appropriately so you will feel confident that you’re creating social change.”
Trypuc notes that the Canadian charities with the biggest marketing budgets take in the greatest share of donations. “The most recent data show that 0.1 percent of all charities take in 40 percent of our annual giving. That raises cause for concern because there are charities that are exceptional at delivering services to Canadians and they’re simply undervalued due to lack of exposure. They struggle to compete because they don’t have the budget to spend 20, 30, 40 percent of it on fundraising; they just can’t. There are charities that are fundraising because they can and not because they have an immediate need.”
There are several factors to consider when choosing which organization to give to, Trypuc says. Start by asking if it has a registered charitable number to ensure it’s legitimate. You can enter it in Canada Revenue Agency’s charity directorate to see if the charity is in good standing. (Embarrassingly enough, CI itself got caught in an infringement of CRA rules when it failed to file an annual information return, resulting in its charitable status being revoked. Audited statements for 2011 are now available on the Charity Intelligence website, and the organization has filed for reinstatement as a charity.)
On that note, see if the charity posts its audited financial statements on its website or ask for a copy.
“Any transparent and accountable organization will have these posted or make them available to you,” Trypuc says, noting that CI has summaries of statements from the charities it has reviewed on its website.
From there, look at the charity’s annual reports to learn about its mission, objectives, accomplishments, programming details, and the number of clients it serves.
“If you’re an annual donor, you’ll want to know if you give money today that it goes to front-line program delivery within a year to a year-and-a-half and [is] not sitting in a bank account for five years,” Trypuc says. “At the end of the day, what did your dollar achieve? There are so many charities that are cost-efficient from a fundraising standpoint but also effective, that have a track record for success and performance, that offer donors huge bang for their buck.”
Aunt Leah’s was one of six B.C. charities that made it onto CI’s top-picks list for 2012. The others were WISH Drop-in Centre Society, Vancouver Native Health Society, B.C. Cancer Foundation, Victoria Hospice Society, and the B.C. Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. (There are more than 85,000 charities in Canada; CI takes requests to have a charity reviewed.)
Among the programs in place at Aunt Leah’s are life-skills training, job training, and safe housing for youth and young moms. Thresholds is a newer initiative that provides new moms who are at risk of losing their babies to the foster-care system with supported housing and help in learning how to care for a newborn. It works closely with B.C. Women’s Hospital’s Fir Square ward, which provides prenatal and postnatal care for new moms recovering from alcohol and drug addiction.
Although Aunt Leah’s needs support year-round, among the gifts available for purchase now are Christmas hampers for youth and new moms in its programs.
“Each donor is unique and has their own personal passions and interests,” Trypuc says. “They need to be confident and empowered to make giving donations, but donors can’t be confident without being informed. Having the facts and figures can help you make better-informed giving decisions.”