Dig Deeper

Last year Haligonians gave generously to many international causes — but is there enough money left in our wallets for local charities in need?

illustration Kate Sinclair

Give. Give generously.

Give blood. Give a little, give a lot, give till it hurts. It’s better to give than receive. This is the season for giving. Forgiving. What can you give?

On the phone, through the mail, at the door of the grocery store, people ask a lot of other people. In Canada there are more than 161,000 registered organizations that depend on public and corporate donations to provide services and programs.

They’re roughly split between charities and non-profits, and 13,000 of them operate in Atlantic Canada. Officially, more than $6.9 billion was donated to charity in Canada in 2004. Unofficially, millions of dollars more were handed over anonymously to amateur sport and school activities, charity raffles, community-improvement drives, squeegee kids, cancer patients and animal shelters.

Statistics Canada just released the numbers of what Canadian tax-filers claimed as charitable donations for 2004. Both the numbers of people who gave, and the amount they gave, are up, continuing a five-year trend. In Halifax, 67,510 of 262,540 tax-filers claimed a charitable donation, with a median amount of $270—up 10 bucks from 2003. It puts us right in the middle of the giving pack, the same as Hamilton, Ontario, and Winnipeg, Manitoba, but behind Saint John, New Brunswick, ($300 median) and the leader, Abbottsford, British Columbia, whose generous citizens coughed up a median amount of $540.

It’s expected that the 2005 numbers will continue to climb. With killer waves smashing into southeast Asia, water covering the rooftops of New Orleans, tens of thousands killed in an earthquake in Pakistan, and our slow-dawning awareness of Africa’s HIV/AIDS epidemic, the requests to give seem relentless. There were concerts and telethons, food and clothing drives, white bracelets, 10-kilometre runs, dog walks and garage sales to raise money for tsunami relief, hurricane relief, earthquake relief. Success stories and good feelings abound.

But having given so much in foreign aid, are we too financially and emotionally tapped to support charity at home?

It is the mandate of Imagine Canada to know. With more than 1,200 members drawn from the charity and non-profit sector, Imagine Canada conducts research, develops public policy, lobbies the federal government on behalf of charities, maintains a library of information pertinent to charity issues and publishes a database of more than 2,200 foundations in Canada that accept applications for charitable contributions (or investments). The organization also encourages the private sector to become active in charitable causes and produce their own surveys on charitable giving and volunteering across the country. From what they’ve discovered, Canadians have not yet reached their capacity to give.

“We don’t have the research yet to comment substantially, but I can tell you it was a big topic of discussion among our members last January; whether the outpouring of overseas support would lead to donor fatigue at home,” says Lisa Hartford, manager of media relations for Imagine Canada. “From what we have seen and heard, that hasn’t been the case.” Hartford cites a survey by Imagine Canada in which donors say a sense of compassion and belief in a cause are the number one and two reasons they chose to donate.

“Those are very powerful motivators, and that doesn’t go away ,” she says. “It’s not that we only have so much to donate, it’s that we only have so much to spend. So if you’re compassionate and believe in a cause you’ll maybe give up a dinner out one week to use that money to good effect.”

Hartford believes that contrary to conventional wisdom, broadcast images of hardship and suffering elsewhere on the nightly news do not lead to people giving up in a “what-can-I-do?” sense of despair, but instead bring a heightened awareness of the need to give a little at home.

It’s something the AIDS Coalition of Nova Scotia has heard first-hand.

“I’ve had many people say to me over the past year they are very aware of global events, but they really feel a need to do something here in the community,” says Robert Allan, executive director of the AIDS Coalition. His organization’s fundraising was directly affected by last December’s tsunami, but in the end, things turned out better than they had hoped.

“We had a major fundraiser scheduled for February, but we decided to postpone it until May, because we felt people’s attention was focused on the tsunami situation,” Allan says. The results were surprisingly positive. “It went off better than the year before, and overall this past year we’ve had our best year ever in terms of donations.”

At Adsum for Women and Children, an organization that runs an emergency shelter and two residential units to provide affordable housing for homeless women and children, feelings are much the same as at the AIDS Coalition. Funding targets were met and donations are up, including one single donation that will pay for a new roof and windows on one of the apartments.

“We’ve had a fantastic year and been very lucky,” says Stella Campbell, Adsum director of funding. “In terms of donor fatigue, whether it’s with our volunteers or through donations, even if people feel helpless about these big events, they feel they can do something in the community that is going to make a change in people’s lives. And I hear frequently from people who donate that they have a strong interest in our cause.”

That interest shows in different ways, such as one donor who makes a regular stop at the Adsum office on his grocery day. “He knows we only have the budget to provide some basic food and always shows up with a grocery bag full of snacks for us to share out to the residents,” says Campbell.

With the higher donation numbers and good-hearted citizenry, it would be nice if it were all chips-and-pop in the charity world. But as charitable donations continue to grow, it is also true that the need for those donations is increasing. Robert Allan of the AIDS Coalition believes one reason his organization does so well is the inherent giving nature of Maritimers. But the Salvation Army can point to different numbers that indicate needs here are a long way from being met.

“Our Red Shield Appeal is our funding drive from which we pay for our social programs,” says Diane van der Horden, director of public relations and fundraising for the Maritime division. “In the Maritimes last year we spent $1.7 million on those programs and only raised $1.1 million. The only way we can make it work is because we’re a national organization and get transfer payments from other areas of the country.”

As someone who works in charity is wont to do, van der Horden finds a silver lining in that financial shortfall cloud. “From a donor’s perspective, you can be sure money given in the Maritimes will be used here, because we aren’t raising enough to even meet the need,” she says. From what she’s heard, the other high-profile Salvation Army fundraiser, the ubiquitous Christmas Kettle campaign, managed to maintain the same level last year as in 2003. But, van der Horden says, the irony is that Christmas can be an anxious time at the Salvation Army. “Every year we hold our breath, because half of our annual funding donations come in at Christmas, and to have 50 percent of your funding depending on one period of time, it can be quite a challenge.”

In what everyone agrees is a competitive market, organizations that rely on public donations are in a tough spot. After all, it’s not very charitable to say, “Give to us, not them.” And then there’s the question of whether drawing attention to a cause through advertising is compatible with the idea of selfless, and anonymous, charity work.

“We’ve been criticized in the past for not tooting our own horn a bit more, for not getting out and telling our story of who we are and what we do,” van der Horden says. “But that kind of advertising and marketing is very expensive, and so we’re caught in a struggle. Do we spend money on marketing that could be used in programs and have some immediate benefit on people’s lives?” By the tone of her voice, van der Horden seems desperate to find the answer.

While we like to boast about our social safety net and universal health care that, in theory, means no one goes without medical attention, it’s easy to gloss over the sour notes in our “we-cover-the-basics” national anthem. In a country once known as the “breadbasket of the world,” there are families who don’t have enough to eat.

At Feed Nova Scotia—formerly the Metro Food Bank Society—this is a problem that just won’t go away. Founded in 1984 for what was supposed to be a short-term measure for people with emergency needs, the food bank even went so far as to draw up a business plan that would have them close their doors in 1994. Not only did that not happen, in 2002 Feed Nova Scotia took on the challenge of becoming a province-wide distributor to food banks, churches and organizations like the Salvation Army in places outside HRM. Between February 2004 and March 2005, they supplied more than 1.5-million kilograms of food to 145 social agencies across the province.

Executive director Dianne Swinemar says Feed NS did feel a hit this year in the face of troubles elsewhere. “I think these things did have an impact, because we are definitely promoting in our city the idea of sending help to devastated areas,” she says. “Most of our donors have an amount of money they give to charities and when it’s been used, it’s been used.”

Like the Salvation Army, Feed NS depends on the Christmas season for a large part of the financial donations that will see them through the year. “When the tsunami hit last year, we had just started our Christmas campaign and it did not do nearly as well as the year before,” says Swinemar. “Now, the food drives we’ve held in the last couple of weeks have all done better than before, and that gives me hope that this coming year, we’ll do better. But I think general giving is down, those unsolicited donations, and I think those are the same individuals who have been responding to these emergencies overseas.”

With a rise of more than seven percent in the provincial “hunger population,” even a five percent reduction in what Feed NS takes in each year means many people will not be helped.

“Our fiscal year ends in June, and having not done so well in that period between January and June, we ended in a deficit position,” Swinemar says. “So if we don’t raise the money that we need this year, we’re so close to the edge it’s frightening. It begs the question whether we can keep going. It’s really serious.”

They will keep going for as long as they can, though, because that’s what charities do. They see a need for their help and they can’t turn away until they have used up every last bit of their energy and resources. All they ask is that the public recognize their effort and try to respond.

They need us to give money, they need us to give our time. They need us, simply, to give a damn.

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