4 min

Choosing charities

A little advice on donations

As the holiday season gets into full gear thoughts turn to presents, vacations and sumptuous meals. But for many queers thoughts also turn to charity and to helping those less fortunate.

Deciding how to do the most good with a limited budget can be difficult. There are a lot of problems in the world or even in a city or neighbourhood and there’s a lot of charities to choose among. How does one narrow it down?

Salah Bachir, the president of Cineplex Media, is one of Canada’s most prominent and generous philanthropists. He gave $1 million to the 519 Church Street Community Centre’s renovation fund. This holiday season he will be donating to the Stephen Lewis Foundation, Casey House and the Second Harvest Food Bank among others. Bachir says there’s more than one way to give.

“It doesn’t have to be money,” he says. “Sometimes just volunteering and showing up to help at events can be very useful. It’s the commitment to do something.”

But if it is a question of money Bachir says not to worry about how much you can afford.

“Nothing’s too small,” he says. “Any amount is more than you started with.”

Bachir also says donors should know which organizations to stay away from.

“You should look at organizations that may be homophobic in any way,” he says. “Sometimes an organization that is praised everywhere can still be homophobic.

“I couldn’t find myself giving money to a church that’s having an internal battle over same-sex relationships,” he says. “I wouldn’t be able to support any Catholic organization that’s doing work or any Anglican for that matter.”

Although Bachir doesn’t mention it, The Salvation Army is a widely respected charity that has consistently discriminated against queers.

Those wanting to donate should also consider whether they want their donation to garner them a tax deduction. Only registered charities can issue tax receipts for donations or gifts. Revenue Canada prohibits charities from engaging in partisan political activity.

An Oct 29 advisory from Revenue Canada states that, “Registered charities are not allowed to support, oppose or otherwise become involved with, whether directly or indirectly, any political party or candidate for public office. Charities engaging in partisan political activities risk losing their charitable status.”

However the enforcement of that standard can seem distinctly arbitrary. Egale Canada, a queer lobby group, is a registered charity and issues tax receipts, for example. So does the 519 Community Centre and the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives. The Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Rights in Ontario (CLGRO) is not a registered charity and cannot issue tax deductions.

The best way to be sure is to check Revenue Canada’s list of registered charities on its website. The website also allows access to charities’ tax returns, which contain details on spending and fundraising.

Bachir suggests donors look at how an organization will spend your money and how easy it is to obtain those answers on its website.

“You need to see that the money is going where you’re donating it and how much they’re spending on overhead,” he says.

Charities have been in the news recently over reports of excessive spending on fundraising and overhead.

The Hospital for Sick Children and World Vision Canada stopped using fundraisers paid by commission, a practice that can lead to aggressive solicitation.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) admitted it counted millions of dollars spent on telemarketing and direct mail expenses as charitable work. MADD has changed its procedures and ended much of its telemarketing.

But Imagine Canada — an umbrella organization for charities and nonprofits — says emphasis on the ratio of fundraising and overhead costs to actual charitable work can be overblown.

Lisa Hartford, Imagine Canada’s manager of communications and media relations, says the figure can vary wildly according to the type of charity.

“It costs far more to administer a cancer lab than to administer a Meals on Wheels program,” she says.

Imagine Canada will launch a new self-policing ethical code for registered charities, in January. The code requires charities that sign up to be completely open to donors. The charities will be required to tell the public what programs they are running and how much money is actually spent on them. Donors will easily learn how much of each dollar is spent on fundraising. Commission-based fundraising is prohibited.

While the code is voluntary, Imagine will review each applicant, set up a complaint process for donors and require members to prove they are abiding by the code.

So far 11 charities have signed up including the Canadian Cancer Society, the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Ontario, Habitat for Humanity, the United Way of Greater Toronto and the YMCA of Greater Toronto.

Hartford says Imagine is launching a recruiting campaign to get members of its previous ethical code to sign onto the new one. Hartford says the old code had about 850 registered charities. Those included such queer stalwarts as the AIDS Committee of Toronto, the Canadian AIDS Society, the Canadian Foundation for AIDS Research, the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network and Casey House.

But who you give to can come down to which causes you feel are worth supporting. Buddies in Bad Times is a beacon of queer culture in Toronto. The Lesbian Gay Bi Trans Youth Line and Supporting Our Youth stand up for young queers. All three are registered charities. CLGRO may not be able to issue tax receipts but political activism is still crucial to the queer community.

Or if you can’t decide you can just make a donation to the Lesbian and Gay Community Appeal, an umbrella organization for Toronto queer charities and itself a registered charity, which will direct your donation to a worthy cause.

There’s no shortage of choices. Just do your research, check your budget or your available time and enjoy the warm glow of generosity this holiday season.