Fundraising Q&A: How to choose what charity to support

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How do I know which is the best charity to support in order to help the survivors in Haiti?

Without knowing your definition of "best," I suspect that you (like so many of us) want to ensure that the highest possible percentage of your gift helps those who have been devastated in Haiti. Fundraising and administrative costs vary depending on a number of factors including the age of the organization, its reputation, method of fundraising, etc.

We are hearing daily reports of heart-warming generosity in response to Haiti's plight. One church in Thunder Bay raised $224 in just two minutes of collecting loose change from parishioners. Some charity call centres were overwhelmed and had to shut down phone systems as knowledge of the deaths and destruction grew, but they quickly got back online and funds raised grew by the minute. Twelve- and eight-year-old sisters gave their life savings of $800 in response to the need. These examples are just a drop in a growing bucket.

One of the latest methods of giving in Canada is the advent of texting donations on your cell phone. A visit to CBC's Haitian relief website provides a series of codes that can be keyed in to send $5.00 (which will be added to your cellular phone bill) to a variety of selected charities. Additionally, you will find a number of charities listed there that you can support.

The overwhelming recommendation by the most informed is to send money to a proven and trusted charity. They're asking us to let them prioritize as to where those funds need to be spent to make the most difference. In short, Haiti is still in triage and a long way off from rehabilitation. Receiving food, clothing, building products, and other supplies is premature. If you want to respond now, it's best to choose a charity with a track record in international aid because they will definitely be the most cost-effective. I have provided a list below and also explained how you can do more of your own research.

Our last column provided you with details on Canada Revenue Agency's (CRA) Fundraising Guidance introduced in the summer of 2009. Its purpose is "to support registered charities to comply with reporting requirements related to fundraising, and encourage them to self-assess their fundraising activities." One of CRA's indicators is the ratio of costs to revenue over a fiscal period, which is a useful guideline for donors to investigate and compare between charities. (It's important to realize that actually allocating costs as fundraising expenses - as opposed to program or administration - is new to many charities, so using this criteria alone is still not enough with smaller, less sophisticated or resourced organizations).

Here's how you can learn more. Canadian registered charities are all listed on Canada Revenue Agency's Charities Directorate website and their "T3010" is the Annual Information Return which must be submitted yearly in order to maintain charitable status. These filings are now listed electronically and are public information, so everyone who wants to investigate a charity can go in and search by name or charitable/business number. Here's an example. I searched the Humanitarian Coalition (description below) but because it's so new (October 2, 2009) there isn't a T3010 on file. Charities have up to six months after their fiscal year-end to submit the previous year's data, and then CRA needs some time to post the information. Let's try CARE Canada. If you click on T3010 at the bottom of the page, you'll find they list 2000 – 2009. Click on one of those years and you're given a menu of sections and schedules that you can access. (As of 2009, CRA has changed the T3010 so as charities move from the "A" form to the "B" form, straight comparisons may be a bit more difficult).

There is also a company called Charity Can that (for a fee) provides a five-year comparison report on any Canadian registered charity by manipulating the data they receive from CRA, through these T3010s. This service and the new Fundraising Guidance are indicative of the demand for transparency and accountability in our charitable sector. Funders and donors are doing their homework and making informed decisions.

The Humanitarian Coalition is:

"a network of Canadian NGOs dedicated to a united response in cases of humanitarian crises. The members of the Coalition unite because they recognise the need for strong, decisive action. At present, the Coalition has four members: CARE Canada, Oxfam Canada, Oxfam-Québec, and Save the Children Canada. These members share the same goal to help the most vulnerable and together they are even better equipped to do so. The Humanitarian Coalition is a fundraising and coordination body that directly supports the humanitarian activities of its members. It does not operate humanitarian programs of its own.

By joining their efforts, the members of the Humanitarian Coalition strive to increase transparency and accountability to both the Canadian public and to those they assist around the world. Together, they will reduce administrative costs and ensure help gets to where it is needed faster than it was possible before."

To donate to them call 1-800-464-9154.

The January 16th National Post had an informative article called "How to Give". In it they feature valuable information about the top international aid charities based on their history, reputation, staff on the ground in Haiti, and ability to respond quickly. In some cases, even the administrative costs are listed...usually between 10-20%. Here is the contact information for each:


Mark Blumberg, the lawyer I have been working with in the Charity Law Information Program (CLIP) has provided some more useful advice in his blog. In addition, he writes about global giving and avoiding charity scams which are also pertinent topics to this discussion.

On February 22-23, 2010 CLIP is hosting the first conference of its kind at the Toronto Board of Trade. Being Good at Doing Good: Safeguarding Yourself and Your Charity in a Complex World will be addressing many of the questions we as donors, fundraisers, financial advisors, treasurers, CEOs, and boards are asking ourselves daily. This is a Canada Revenue Agency-funded initiative so the registration is subsidized and affordable and there is an impressive list of Canadian and international speakers presenting on topics like governance, accountability, transparency, financial controls, capacity building and international aid by Canadian charities. Those who are interested should respond quickly because the early bird savings end January 29th, 2010.

There is no easy answer to your question about what is the best charity to support in times of need. Your decision is a very personal one based on the level of information you need before you part with your hard-earned money. As fundraisers we know that a compelling case for support appeals to the donor's head and heart. But when disaster hit...HEART is at the forefront!

The Government of Canada has agreed to match all our donations, dollar for dollar, made to Canadian registered charities between January 12 – February 12, 2010 up to a maximum of $50 million. In just nine days we have given more than $40 million in response! Let's ensure that this goal is surpassed in the next two weeks so that Haitians can rebuild their homes and their lives with the help of those of us who want to make a difference in this world.

Cynthia Armour is a freelance specialist in fundraising and governance. A Certified FundRaising Executive (CFRE) since 1995, she volunteers as a subject matter expert with CFRE International. She works with boards and senior staff to ensure that strong leadership will enhance organizational capacity to govern and fundraise effectively. Contact Cynthia directly at 705-799-0636, e-mail, or visit for more information about her services.

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Disclaimer: Advice and recommendations are based on limited information provided and should be used as a guideline only. Neither the author nor make any warranty, express or implied, or assume any legal liability for accuracy, completeness, or usefulness of any information provided in whole or in part within this article.

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