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How to ensure your holiday donation gets used responsibly

Make sure your money doesn't go to waste, or worse, benefit a charity with a history of homophobia

Charities are wondering what impact the current economic uncertainty might have on holiday donations. How can donors be sure that their hard-earned money goes to help those who need it?

“People understand that our community groups need support but we’re concerned about the economy,” says Philip Wong, executive director of Toronto’s Community One (formerly the Lesbian and Gay Community Appeal Foundation).

Many charities that benefit gay and lesbian people lack the support and structure to advertise and solicit donations effectively on their own, says Wong. That leaves executive directors and volunteer board members to struggle with fundraising. Community One offers a way for charitable groups to outsource fundraising, leaving gay and lesbian groups to concentrate more on doing charitable work and less on paying for it. It’s a bit like a United Way specifically for sexual minorities.

Wong says a donation to Community One benefits more than 30 gay and lesbian charities, including arts and culture groups, social services and health providers. Wong has some part-time administrative help but he otherwise works alone. His salary and office space are subsidized by the Ontario Trillium Foundation.

For those wishing to give to charities for the benefit of gay and lesbian people, safe in the knowledge that their money will go to good use and not be consumed by administrative costs, pocketed by unethical or inexperienced managers or lost to organizational instability, Community One is a safe bet.

But if you prefer to give directly to your favourite charities what safeguards are in place to ensure your money doesn’t go to waste, or worse, go to benefit an organization with a history of homophobia?

No Christmas is without its Scrooge, and the historically homophobic Salvation Army, one of the most visible charities trolling the streets of Toronto during the holidays, is one that should be avoided by gay and lesbian people.

The Sally Ann caused an uproar in the US in 2001, for example, when documents surfaced outlining its policy against hiring gay and lesbian people. That same year the organization repealed partner benefits for same-sex employees, claiming benefits should only be extended to married couples.

The Canada Revenue Agency (CRA), the government body that grants and polices charitable status and nonprofit organizations, remains mum about how gay and lesbian people can ensure their donations will benefit gay people.

“We don’t recommend any particular registered charities,” says CRA spokesperson Katherine Jolicoeur.

But to ensure that a charity is in good standing, Jolicoeur says, prospective donors should check the CRA website for annual information returns filed by the charities. That information can be used to evaluate if a charity handles its donations responsibly.

When it comes to research Owen Charters, executive director of CanadaHelps.org, compares charitable donations to investing in a company. He says that before you reach for your wallet you should investigate the charity and “be wise about giving, be thoughtful of where it’s going.”

A proper website, financial disclosure, annual reports and real examples of what a charity has accomplished are all things a prospective donor should look into. If a group has little or no transparency, if it’s difficult to find answers to your questions, Charters says donors should choose another charity.

Jolicoeur says legitimate charities can be confirmed by finding tax information on the CRA website. Donors should receive an official donation receipt, and cheques should be written to an actual charity or foundation, never a private citizen.

Jolicoeur says the CRA holds charities responsible for meeting a dispersement quota that guides spending. Eighty percent of every dollar earned by a charity through donations must be spent on charitable acts, she says. “The other 20 percent can be for administrative costs as well as fundraising costs.”

If a charity does not comply with CRA rules, it will be warned. The CRA may impose a fine for a second offence. If a charity still ignores the rules, its charitable status could eventually be revoked altogether.

If giving money is not an option this season, you can still give back by donating your time. Don Lapierre, a manager for Volunteer Canada, says time is a gift that can be more precious than financial assistance. His organization helps volunteers find local groups where their talents can best benefit their communities.

“We’re all stretched in so many different possible ways,” says Lapierre. “Having a little bit of free time is precious, so giving it away is a bit of a challenge for some people. If someone’s going to give their time, they want to see the impact, they want to feel good about it.”

If you choose to volunteer your time, Lapierre says the first step should be to do a personal skills inventory and decide what your assets are and how much time you are willing to give. From there it’s as simple as choosing an organization you identify with and approaching it with a clear indication of the strengths and possible offerings that you can provide.

Wong agrees that volunteering time and expertise can be just as valuable to a charity as a cash donation. “Connecting through volunteerism is a brilliant way to build community as well,” he says. Wong started his career answering phones at the Youth Line.

Community One plans on launching a volunteer campaign in 2009 through the LGBT Giving Network, promoting volunteerism among communities of sexual minorities and helping outline ways individuals can give more than just financial aid to different organizations.

“I don’t think our charities could run without volunteers,” says Wong. “Our community has been built on activism and volunteerism.”