The Problem with Charity

The Problem with Charity
Charity is not inherently bad. It’s just that more often than not it isn’t a very effective means of getting resources to those who need it. I am not opposed to contributing to charity but I believe some charities are more sustainable than others. I am very careful about which organizations I donate to and why.

Generally speaking, the more charities in your community the less effective your government is at spending your tax dollars. As a society, we have become reliant on charities to administer social services that would be better operated by a well funded social system. We should not be trying to avoid paying taxes, in fact, a well funded social system is going to save us money. Let me give you an example.

In the 1990’s, I lived in Norway for several years. Norway is a social democracy and it really looks after its citizens. It’s true, your taxes are higher but so is everything else. Back then the minimum wage alone was $15 per hour, it’s $26 per hour today. Even though a Norwegian pays higher taxes, they end up with more money in their pocket. Once your taxes have been paid, you can spend that money however you want. The country has a heavily subsidized childcare program, free post secondary education and a fully paid pension. Dental treatment is also free for children with a generous 75% subsidy for teens to the age of 20. Adults and seniors with certain medical conditions will also qualify for free treatment. If you have a lower income, there is a housing subsidy that will help you secure housing with a good standard. Norway also heavily subsidizes its small farmers. Norwegians believe that farmers and their unique sets of skills are vital to its communities, food systems and overall citizen health. As a Norwegian, you have very few out-of-pocket expenses to pay or save for because all the basics are covered. No fundraising necessary for a daycare or grade school, no saving for dental work, no loans for a university degree, no extra savings for retirement with access to good housing and nutritious food. Ultimately, you're left with a lot more money in your pocket. You'll be a lot less stressed out too, which means you'll be a better contributor to society. Norway has built a solid social safety net paid for by taxes. Citizens should not have to rely on charity to receive these necessities. It’s impossible for the charitable sector to cover all these basic needs. This results in a lot of citizens getting left behind and this has a lasting negative effect on the overall health of our country.

To be honest, I feel we still pay quite high taxes here in Canada for an appallingly low level of social services. I wish Canadians would pay more attention to how our government spends our tax dollars. We rely too much on charity. Certain types of charity actually allow some companies to claim additional tax savings further eroding our tax base.

Let’s take a look at a few different types of charities I make a special effort to avoid. The most insidious type of charity is checkout charity. It happens at stores everywhere. A cashier asks you to donate a dollar while you're paying for your items in a checkout. Many give the dollar out of guilt. Charities love it because it raises money from the masses at little cost. Companies love it because it makes them look benevolent, even though it was customers like you and me making the donations. It’s become very prevalent at grocery stores, drug stores and other big box retailers and I dread it. It’s very difficult to find out exactly how much money actually goes to help the people it’s intended for and companies get to use your donations for their tax deductions. Some even keep a percentage of the donations themselves as fees for hosting the collection. You’d be better off donating some of your time to a local cause in your neighbourhood such as skating rink maintenance or bicycle repair.

Of all the ways we raise money for charity, casinos are the ones I dislike the most. For starters, gambling is addictive and we create other expensive social problems by using casinos and bingos as a funding source. Not only are we feeding addiction, but we’re also turning a blind eye to the consequences of those addictions. It’s like robbing Peter to pay Paul. We never get ahead. I recall an incident when a parent was arrested for leaving their child in the car in the parking lot while gambling inside. Another parent announced that it wasn’t her problem. What she failed to see is that a child being left in a car unattended is essentially a form of neglect. It will have lasting effects on that child and pose a cost to society when the child becomes a suffering adult. So, one child benefits and another doesn’t. This type of charity is ineffective because it has other negative ramifications that cancel it out. Another problem with casino money is that there are very strict guidelines on what it can be spent on. For example, it can’t be used to pay for additional staff which is what schools really need. Parents are often asked to work all night and it creates extra stress for a family. It has become a crutch for our government. Schools should be fully funded and parents should stop accepting this form of fundraising. If everyone stopped utilizing casinos, the government would be forced to find more creative solutions. Funding education and other programs really should be a fully financed part of our social safety net. Investing in children now means we'll be well looked after once we reach retirement age.

Some charities are big business and are creating a whole new job sector in our economy. The average director’s salary at United Way alone is $80,000 a year. Operations this large develop all sorts of internal management problems making the jobs stressful and the charity less effective. They become top heavy and more of your donations end up going to administration than to those who need it. In addition to this, charities of this magnitude are offering services that could be more effectively distributed utilizing government systems instead.

I often get asked to donate items for silent auctions or for gift basket raffles with the promise of promotion by these larger charitable organizations. These freebies never work and are almost always undervalued. It’s a slap in the face. The directors who ask for the donations make more money than me. Why can’t these large charities buy the item from micro businesses like mine and build it into their cost? These large non-profits often have reserve funds. They can afford to use their savings to make their charity go further by buying some of their auction and raffle items and circulating their money in the local economy.

Charity isn’t very sustainable when it can only provide bandaids and not lasting solutions. The Mustard Seed ran a fundraising campaign called Camp at Home for Hope. The campaign was utilized to raise money to cover the costs of the services they offer to homeless people. The campaign seemed to genuinely engage people in discussion about homelessness and the other problems associated with it. But, you can’t luxury backyard camp other people out of homelessness. We need long term housing solutions. I think this sends the wrong message. We can never know what it’s actually like to experience homelessness by sleeping one night in a tent in our backyard. You still have access to electricity, food and a toilet. If it gets too cold or stormy you have the option to go inside. A homeless person doesn’t have any of these options.

The Mustard Seed states that it “continues to grow with the needs of those we serve” on its webpage. If the Mustard Seed is growing, that’s not a good sign because that means the number of people in need is growing. Plus, they can’t serve everyone and their alignment with the church means some will be left out anyway. Along with homelessness comes increased crime, pollution, mental illness, drug addiction, child abuse and more. How many homes could have been built for the same cost as giving to this charity and the subsequent costs of not ending homelessness. I’m not saying that charities like these don’t offer some relief. They are needed in the short term. But, our reliance on them means we aren’t implementing actual long term solutions. In fact, our dollars are being wasted and it comes with a major cost to society.

I’ve always thought the gala fundraiser was another bizarre event. The rich buy tickets and feast on the most exclusive buffet all to raise money for the homeless. Yet, these marginalized people aren’t even invited to the party. The gala is an exclusive event where you go to be seen and show off how generous you are. Just how generous is this event? The homeless are real people with real feelings. What if we invited them? What if the privileged class made an effort to interact with these people on the fringes? Do you see how hosting these type of exclusive events just continues to normalize homelessness reducing our chances of ever solving the problem. Exclusive charity events are like putting a clean shirt on a dirty body. Let’s start demanding that our leaders implement real solutions to these problems, make society more inclusive, and give our government permission to use our taxes to do it. We all benefit.

Food banks are another band aid charity and sadly demand is growing. Although food banks offer necessary supplies in an emergency, they often can't supply enough at a quality that is required. When we donate non-perishable items to a food bank it is usually from the back of our cupboards and not of high nutritional value. Perfect in a pinch but, if you eat this stuff all the time you’re going to develop health problems. I go into a rage every fall when the annual veterans food drive is conducted. How is it that these men and women who put their lives on the line are not provided with an adequate enough pension so that they can buy good quality food without relying on charity?! Again, let me emphasize that donated food is usually not the best nutritional quality. Do our elders not deserve a healthy diet? Obviously, I believe that more government funding would solve this problem. In the meantime, you should know that cash donations go a lot farther in helping food banks provide necessary supplies than non-perishable food items. Cash enables food banks to buy more and better quality food including fresh fruits and vegetables. In the long term, we need a better strategy. I think we should consider a universal basic income giving everyone enough money to buy healthy food and safe housing.

Finally, there are charities with environmental, social responsibility and ethical goals in mind. One must be wary of these too. Planting trees to offset your carbon footprint sounds ideal but it’s pretty useless. The effectiveness of planting trees is not enough to offset all the emissions being emitted. It also encourages us to emit more. We can’t simply plant our way out of climate change. We have to actually cut our overall consumption to reduce emissions. Offsetting them will never be enough. The other problem with tree planting is that the wrong species are often planted in places that ruin existing habitats. This does even further damage to the environment. There are similar problems with socially responsible and ethical charities such as Fairtrade. These types of charities help farmers, in the short term, get more for their efforts and ensure that workers get paid a living wage but the truth is that first world countries created this problem through exploitation. Our ability to buy cheap and abundant imported goods has come at the expense of developing nations with the resources. We’ve been extracting their assets at their expense. We’re not paying the hidden costs. They are. The fair trade movement is an attempt to right this imbalance. However, it is only a short term solution. Our economy is not set up to pay the true cost of these fair trade goods. Only the wealthy can afford them.

Our environment cannot regenerate fast enough to recover from first world demand. We must cut our consumption for an effective long term solution.If you are really serious about offsetting your carbon footprint and ensuring people all over the world live healthy, sustainable lives stop paying to plant trees and find other ways to cut your emissions. Grow some of your own food, ride a bike instead of driving, buy local or move to a smaller home. Repair stuff instead of buying new. Fight to preserve our wild places. When you visit a forest practise leaving no trace. Encourage others to do the same.

I get asked for donations on a daily basis and I do give where it makes sense. I’m careful to ensure that the charity aligns with my own moral values and I need to be confident that the majority of my donation will be benefiting those who need it most. These are charities where I know exactly where the money is going. Consider giving your money to fund services on the ground that make the most difference like the DOAP team. I also donate time and money to Two Wheel View. They are making a direct impact on kids' lives. Although they do have staff on salary, the staff is spending the majority of their time helping the kids. The Sprawl is another good one. For a monthly $10 donation, I am happy knowing that my funds are helping to employ local, independent journalists writing all the news that mainstream media is missing. I also look for charities that don’t overlap services and if they do, they must demonstrate how they are working together with other organizations. Often you will find many environmental or arts charities competing for the same dollars. I only want to support charities that work together to most effectively spend our donations. Competing charities make no sense. Cooperation is so much more efficient.

You don’t even have to spend actual money to make a difference, you can donate your time. You can make a meal for a neighbour in need. Teach a friend how to mend clothing. Share produce from your garden. Host an inclusive event like a bike ride. Support conservation efforts. Pay attention to politics. And most of all, don’t give your money away out of guilt. Do the research and make your donations count. I personally feel that if the charity isn't making a lasting positive impact on the longterm sustainability of our only home, earth, then it's not worth supporting. We must do our best to eliminate poverty so we can focus on preventing the collapse of our natural world.

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.