3 min

Charity’s double edge

It's more important than ever to put our money where our values are

I have spent more than 25 years being immune to Christmas. While I enjoyed the time off of school as much as the next girl, I usually spent Christmas Day engaging in traditional Jewish celebrations: watching movies and eating Chinese food. It’s only since being embraced by my girlfriend’s Christmas-loving family that I have truly understood the gluttony and indulgence associated with this holiday.

It’s certainly made me appreciate what I have, and after several years of post-university frugality, I have started donating regularly to organizations that I care about. But this year, as we sink into the worst economic recession in recent memory, the competition for charity dollars is the fiercest I’ve ever seen. That’s why it’s more important than ever to put our money where our values are.

All the same, I wish the whole concept of charity didn’t exist. In an ideal world, we would all pay toward a tax system that re-distributed wealth in an equitable manner, so no one would have to go hungry or search for a warm, dry place to sleep.

The very concept of charity grew out of churches and other religious institutions that spent many years providing free health care and food for hungry people long before the Canadian government clued into the enlightened idea that politicians bear responsibility for more than building roads and awarding contracts to the moneyed classes. But without a universal, secular social safety net, the decision as to who constituted “the deserving poor” lay in the hands of the churches, meaning that help was only given to those judged to be the most destitute or morally correct — the rest were left to fend for themselves.

Today, I am not sure that people are faring much better. The federal government’s massive cuts to health and social services transfer payments in the 1990s led to a sickening spiral of downloading and slashing of social programs at the provincial and municipal levels. The most basic poverty-alleviation programs such as Employment Insurance (EI) and welfare have been drastically cut and made much more difficult to access. According to the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, there has been a 40 percent reduction in the spending power of welfare cheques in Ontario since 1995 and a similar trend has taken place across the country. The thousands of people who have lost their jobs in recent months will not have much better luck. As it stands, only 40 percent of unemployed people in Canada actually qualify for EI, and rates are capped at less than $400 a week in most provinces.

What does this mean? That, once again, the decision of who deserves help is left in the hand of private interests. Citizens and corporations are cajoled into donating to charitable organizations — getting big tax write-offs in the process. All this does is drain the system of the money that’s needed to provide universal support, while turning the decision of who gets help into a private and personal process, rather than a public one.

That being said, I still think that it’s great when we pitch in to support community organizations, cultural groups and the most marginalized members of our neighbourhoods. But this holiday season, let’s work hard to support organizations without the big budgets for splashy fundraising campaigns — the people who are fighting for social justice while they also confront daily, emergency needs. Here are a few suggestions:

1. Donate to your local AIDS service organization. Where I live, the AIDS Committee of Ottawa has been heroic. ACO’s underpaid staff visits bars and hang-outs, making sure they’re well-stocked with condoms, gloves and lube. They’ve stepped up to provide safer inhalation kits after the City of Ottawa slashed funding for the program. ACO is also serving as the organizing hub for the newly formed Prostitutes of Ottawa Gatineau, Work, Educate, Resist (POWER).

2. Support a women’s shelter near you. Women fleeing from domestic violence will be in even more need as the economic pressure increases. I am always careful to make sure that the women’s groups I support are explicitly pro-choice and trans-inclusive.

3. Support the right to choose. At the recent Conservative Party policy convention, delegates voted to support more legislation like Ken Epp’s 2007 bill to award “personhood” to fetuses. The Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada countered every one of Epp’s factual manipulations last year and they are going to need more support to fight these measures in 2009.

4. Protect civil liberties. The BC Civil Liberties Association is defending an HIV-positive man on trial for aggravated sexual assault — even though he never actually transmitted the disease. Civil liberties groups also fight draconian “security” legislation. You certainly won’t see a lot of office Christmas party collections being donated to groups like these — that’s why they need our support.

5. Fund international organizations that promote partnership and don’t proselytize.
If you want to help fight poverty in the Global South, please don’t throw money at the big charities funded by evangelical churches. Inter Pares works in direct partnership with community organizations in Africa, Asia and Latin America. They use a flat management structure where everyone makes the same salary — from the receptionist to the executive director. And people don’t have to pray before they get paid.

During these rough economic times, we can expect to hear a lot from politicians about “personal responsibility.” I’d rather spread the holiday spirit by donating to organizations that give me hope that we might make it out of this mess — if we work together.