COLUMN: Charitable giving requires scrutiny

I used to believe Canadians gave generously to international humanitarian aid, but not any longer.

By Ron Heusen

I used to believe Canadians gave generously to international humanitarian aid, but not any longer.

Canada has never come close to meeting the commitments it made in either the 1970 UN Assembly Resolution or the 2000 UN Millennium Declaration to give 0.7 per cent of our Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to foreign aid.

The Canadian Centre for Philanthropy, Understanding Donors report provided some insight with respect to overall Canadian charity.

Eighty-four per cent of Canadians give money annually, but the lion’s share comes from 25 per cent who give 82 per cent of total dollar donations. The profile of that 25 per cent is that of a wealthier, more educated person frequently affiliated to a religious organization.

Who gets how much of the total value of donations? Religious organizations eat up 49 per cent, health 20 per cent, social services 10 per cent, and anchoring the bottom two positions was international aid at three per cent and environmental causes at two per cent.

The 1996 Bryden Report was the first to alert government to the big business nature of Canadian charities.

Current Revenue Canada statistics claim Canada has 86,000 registered charities employing two million Canadians. Add incorporated non-profits and that number swells to more than 160,000 organizations generating $106 billion in economic activity, representing seven per cent of our total GDP.

Governments provide half of the funding organizations receive and Canadians annually claim up to $8.5 billion as taxable donations.

Sixty-five per cent of Canadian charities operate in communities with a mandate to spend donations locally.

Those staggering domestic statistics stand in stark contrast to Canada’s annual foreign aid budget of 0.28 per cent of GDP ($3.9 billion), which has earned us the sad distinction of being 29th out of 38 countries surveyed by the World Bank when studying foreign aid effectiveness.

In 2002, Toronto Star reporter Kevin Donovan revealed that one in six Canadian charities spent more money running their organization and fundraising than on actual charitable work.

Without question, many of our charities do wonderful work here in Canada, but we have to understand that while charities fund domestic employment, administration, infrastructure and service, one human life expires overseas in unimaginable torment every three seconds.

Over the last 20 years, as our domestic charity industry grew, 270 million people died due to extreme poverty.

Somewhere we lost the ability to see that by spending almost all our charitable money in Canada, we tacitly acquiesced to the deaths of millions of human beings as the price of Canadian self-interest.

How did we become so self-absorbed that we could numb ourselves to that reality?

Every year Canadians find money to spend more than $14 billion on gambling and charitable gaming, yet we consistently fail to honour our minimal United Nations foreign aid promises to feed starving people.

Possibly some of you made the same naive presumptions I did about our foreign aid contributions.

Today every dollar of my donation money bypasses Canada completely through direct overseas transactions to the United Nations World Food Program.

As the largest, most effective humanitarian organization on Earth, with one of the lowest administrative costs (seven per cent), I take some comfort in knowing 93 per cent of my money goes directly to helping the world’s most desperate people.

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Retired Nanaimo resident Ron Heusen writes every second week. He can be reached through the News Bulletin at editor@nanaimobulletin.com.

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