Where to give this Christmas

This morning I was listening to the radio when I heard the Lighthouse ask for donations of personal care items this Christmas.  I wasn’t surprised but disappointed.  When I was there a contract was finalized with the Ministry of Social Services that paid the Lighthouse very well to house people in its shelters at a going rate of $67.50 a night (that’s been the rate for the last couple of years).  Over a month, it is over $2400 a bed a month to house someone (which is why housing first programs are so important).  It is a constant rate across the province.  Unlike other shelters, the LH gets stable funding for those beds.

When the housing rates were increased, I was invited to the announcement and the government made it really clear that the increase of rates was designed to ensure that not only room and board are taken care of but also things like shampoo and hygiene products.  It was to provide a quality level of care.  It actually a higher rate than other agencies get to provide the same kind of services.  So why if an agency is getting around $2k a bed for room and board, can it not purchase shampoo, tampons, and soap?  Especially when there are extremely cheap institutional suppliers that sell this stuff for pennies a package (I know because I used to order it).  Even expensive things (like lockers, new beds, and linen) were a cost of doing business and orgs budgeted the money for it.

Even for long term clients, they are not being housed at a loss (going rate is $820 a month, some agencies like the LH get $910 a month from Social Services)  Not only that but with the leadership of Premier Wall and the Saskatchewan Party (see, I can give credit where credit is due), the SAID program is giving more money than ever before to ensure clients are comfortable and can have their needs meant.  It has been an increase of hundreds of dollars a month.  No NGOs are providing services at a loss to the provincial government.  So why do so many agencies use this season to ask for money for programs that are clearly fully funded by taxpayers.  So we pay our taxes to pay for it and then that money isn’t spent because people will donate as well.  It has never made any sense to me.  In the end, some non profits are using the cold, the season, and year end generosity to manipulate people into giving more and that sucks.

Even for people who Social Services would not fund (it happens), the cost of housing someone was so low that it never impacted the bottom line on the budget.  You were left with laundry costs, water for a shower, and breakfast (which was made anyways).  When I was at the Salvation Army, we stopped charging clients for things because they were so cheap to provide for free (like laundry soap) and improved client life.  There was always enough money.

A friend of mine was once the national treasurer of a national charitable organization.  He told Wendy and I over dinner that we should never give to his organization as it has millions of dollars in surplus every single year and yet it kept going out all over the country and getting more.  Those are facts that were never made public but instead the appeal for more or dire consequences would come would be repeated.  You know what, Canadians would “answer the call” and give thinking they are needed to keep essential services going.  In the end, the programs are totally funded by governments and often more than one level.

I was sitting down with another leader of a large non-profit who was talking about how they make their communications confusing about their finances confusing as accurate information may discourage donors.  In other words he didn’t want people to know who much government funding his organization received which helped his appeals for support to individuals and business.  I’m sorry but how is that manipulative at best and fraudulent at worst?

Dishonesty and fund raising go part and parcel.  Like I said shelters run a profit (or at least the ones I ran did) in excess of six figures per annum some years.  Yet what was featured in appeals for help?  Shelters.  I know people wanted to give but not a single dime of that money ever went to shelter services because it was never needed.  Non-profit fundraising is big business even in Saskatchewan.  A Regina shelter’s American fundraising firm wasn’t taking Saskatoon clients because their Regina client is fund raising here (with them taking a large portion of what is raised).  The firm is quite impressive and is using micro targeted mailing lists to target Saskatoon households and blocks.  Oddly enough while the parse up Saskatoon by the street according to income, they fail to understand that we are in Saskatoon and their client serves Regina. It’s not my money.

There are some programs that desperately need help but it’s hard to figure out which ones.  One agency I know of proudly states they get no government funding when in reality, about 90% of their revenue comes from the Ministry of Social Services.  I don’t know how they reconcile that but that is the line they give to donors and the media.  It makes no sense to me. 

My point is that you may want to look hard at who you donate to this season and ask some really hard questions about how that money is being spent and why they need money for it.  For some orgs, they may be working in an area where the governments don’t really care like food security (Friendship Inn and Saskatoon Food Bank).  Food programs almost never get government funding and are almost entirely dependent on donations.   That may be a good place to start.

Another thing to consider is why are some agencies asking for money for things when others are not?  If the government funding is there, why do some keep asking for donations to help the same group of clients that several other types of housing providers are not.  It’s awkward to ask those questions and my experience and seeing those financials is that answer is often unpleasant.  Tim Richter, the head of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness talks of the homeless industrial complex and he is right.  I saw it up close for 8 years.  It can be really self-serving.

Personally my giving tends to be attached to areas where the government doesn’t like to participate in or does a really bad job of working in.  I also put my money where my mouth is and I give money directly to a couple of people who need the help.  I have written about the benefits of giving money directly to people before and it’s benefits and it is something that I believe in.

Those are my thoughts.  I am sorry if I hurt anyone by these thoughts.  I hate to say it but if I have, I may not have a lot of respect for what your org is doing anyways.

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