Where is my donation going?

As Christmas approaches, our thoughts may turn to helping those less fortunate than us.  Canadians are generous people, but many of you wonder whether the gifts you make to charities are really getting to the people they are meant to help.  That includes those of you who want to make a charitable bequest in your will.

This cynicism is unfortunate, because there are so many excellent charities out there and the need is so great.  It’s always the bad apples that get the publicity.

I recently attended a meeting of the Estate Planning Council of Vancouver, of which I’m a member, where our guest speaker was Marcel Lauzière, President and CEO of Imagine Canada.  Imagine Canada is an organization that, among other things, makes information on Canada’s 86,000 or so registered charities available to the public.

Among the messages Marcel brought to us was that in order for charities to do their work, they necessarily incur administrative costs.  For example, in order to get your donation to the hungry (such as through a food bank) a distribution centre is needed.  Yes, most of the work may be done by volunteers, but operations work more efficiently if there is an experienced person at the helm, and such people do not generally work for free.

The help line needs infrastructure (eg, telephones) and the women’s shelter needs, well, a shelter.  As another attendee pointed out, even getting you your charitable receipt requires resources, such as a computer to generate and print or send that receipt.

How can you know what percentage of your donation dollar is actually hitting the ground where it’s needed?  go to http://www.cra-arc.gc.ca/charitylists/, or to http://www.charityfocus.ca, and look up the charity you are thinking of donating to.

If you want 100% of your charitable donation to go to the charitable purpose and you don’t care about getting a tax reciept, you can do one of two things.  One is to give by volunteering your time rather than money;  the other is to give directly to the person asking for  help.

At least volunteering ensures your donation goes to your intended purpose.  Giving money to a street person, for example, may not actually do him much good, whereas if you give to an organization that assists such people, he may actually get the assistance he needs (ie, shelter, medical help, advocacy, a meal).

If you can afford it, give now, and give generously.  Do your research.  Consider the smaller charities that may in fact be less “top heavy.”  Consider local charities that help the people you pass on the street every day.  And by all means update your will to leave part of your estate to a charity that has some meaning for you.  Just don’t be so cynical.  After all, Christmas is coming.

About Maria Holman

I am a lawyer with over 28 years of experience in drawing up wills, trusts and estate plans, helping clients with probate and estate administrations and advising business owners and families about planning for the future. You can find me at Webster Hudson & Coombe LLP in Vancouver, BC
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