Buying a Better World

Can charity make the world we want? If so, to whom should we sign the cheque?

December 1, 2014

Hazlitt regular contributor Linda Besner's poetry and non-fiction have appeared in The Walrus, Maisonneuve, and The Malahat Review among other...

Elephants are dying, says the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. Palestinians are dying, says Jewish Voice for Peace. The Yazidi people of northern Iraq are in refugee camps and they are dying, says a hastily set up Facebook group that gives a bank account number in Amsterdam. We’re all going to die, say the many environmental groups fighting climate change. My cousin sends a picture of his mustache from Australia.

It is within my power to help, they tell me. Two-year-old Barsilinga, found next to his dying mother after a raid by ivory poachers in Kenya, is pictured trotting valiantly along in a red checkered blanket. He could be my wrinkly little foster son for $50 a year. US and Israeli governments could be lobbied for the creation of policies consistent with the human rights of Palestinians and international law for $18. “Do you want to spend the winter in a tent? No?” the Yazidi page asks. Neither do the Yazidis; I should give whatever I can for housing, wheelchairs, transportation to medical services. When my cousin reaches a thousand dollars for colon cancer research or the end of November—whichever comes first—he will stop signing his emails with the honorific “The Soupcatcher.”

I’ve been giving to the same organizations every month for almost ten years. Embarrassingly small amounts, but still. I back the usual suspects: Greenpeace and Médecins sans Frontières, as well as a small organization called Pivot in Vancouver’s Downtown East Side that mounts challenges to laws that marginalize poor people. I also know what it’s like to be the one soliciting funds on behalf of elephants or rainforest or sick children. When I was 25 and 26, I spent several shifts every week standing on street corners with a binder and a vest, trying to charm or guilt pedestrians into stopping to talk tsunamis and rehydration kits. I was paid 12 dollars an hour, and I pitched people on 30-dollar-a-month donations—emergency relief for “the price of a cup of coffee a day,” as we were trained to say. It’s a line, but it’s also true. That was 2005; now you’d be lucky to get a coffee for a dollar, whereas an oral rehydration solution kit (used to treat diarrhea, which kills more than half a million children in developing countries every year) still costs less.

I chose these charities at the time for the same basic reason most people choose which charity to support: someone asked me. But 10 years later, I’m realizing I never thought about whether these are the organizations most in need of my donation or the ones mounting the most effective interventions in their respective areas. And what about all the other problems I’ve been ignoring in the meantime? Perhaps it’s time to reconsider.

The world has almost too many ills to count, and I am sitting with my feet on the heater trying to add up and compare the value of the relief I could offer. Is one Yazidi the equivalent of five baby elephants? Should preparing Canada to receive climate change refugees take precedence over the needs of refugees farther away, or is the reverse true? If I support one cause, I feel as though I’m declaring my indifference to others. At the same time, I worry that the initiative I choose may be a colonialist, oppressive intervention that my leftier-than-thou friends will sneer at me for thinking is a good idea. I would like both the elephants and the Palestinians to have a better time of it, but everything about this sentence seems vapid, indolent, and wrong.

Recently, there’s been a particularly strong sense that things have veered seriously off course. It’s been a tough, tough few months in domestic news. The dismissal of CBC’s Jian Ghomeshi flooded the public sphere with evidence of our culture of sexual violence. Protests on Burnaby Mountain have seen more than 100 protesters arrested for trying to assert the rights of elected local government over the will of foreign corporations. And last week, a grand jury failed to indict a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri for shooting an unarmed black teenager. When I saw this news, I thought, Who can I pay to make racism go away?

Sometimes we give money because we don’t know what else to do. It feels like a concrete action, an expression of our will in a harder currency than sympathy or outrage. We don’t have the opportunity to vote on whether women can feel safe walking down the street, but we do have the opportunity to give money to shelters for women escaping domestic violence. At the same time, for those of us who are white and middle-class, our charitable donations can sometimes feel like expiations of our guilt and complicity for living comfortably from one day to the next in a society that does not express our values. We live in a consumer culture, and the instinct to approach problems like racism, violence against women, or cruelty to animals with money is suspect. Can we buy the better world that we want? Is it wrong to try?


Canadians are the third most charitable citizens in the world, according to the 2014 rankings released by the UK-based Charities Aid Foundation. The US and Myanmar are tied for first; in Myanmar’s case, donations are largely religious observance of the duty to support monks in the Theravada Buddhist tradition. American philanthropy also has religious roots, but the strength of the charitable sector in the US is partly due to the limited role of government in providing social services. A country like Finland does not have a strong tradition of individual philanthropy, but then they don’t need one.

Recently, giving habits have been changing. In the past decade or so, donors have started to expect something new from charities: data.

In Canada, our philanthropic traditions predate the rise of the social welfare state. The line from Mosaic tithing—the ancient Judaic practice of giving a tenth of one’s yearly flock or harvest for the support of the priestly caste as well as the widows and orphans—bobs and weaves through the medieval feudal system to British land-rents to the New World, where the church took charge of the moral and material care of their parish poor. Canadians gave to religious organizations to discharge their obligations both to the higher power and the lower classes.

By the turn of the 20th century, nascent state institutions began to edge out church groups and wealthy individuals for control of the advancement of social welfare. In The Age of Light, Soap, and Water: Moral Reform in English Canada, 1885–1924, Mariana Valverde writes that as early as 1893, the city of Toronto had moved to take on municipal control over poverty relief. During and after the Great Depression of the 1930s, the state’s role in assuring a social safety net solidified. The uneasy relationship between public and private funding and control, however, never quite went away. In Toronto, the first city employee responsible for poverty relief had his salary paid for with a donation from the philanthropist Goldwin Smith.

In our time, many Canadians still make charitable donations to religious institutions—“the advancement of religion” is one of four permissible purposes recognized by the Canadian Revenue Agency in an application for charitable status—and churches, synagogues, mosques, and other places of worship continue to provide services for the disadvantaged in their communities. But the majority of Canada’s registered charities—we have some 86,000 of them—are secular organizations. Some 15 percent work to spread Canadian wealth to other countries; charities like UNICEFOxfam, and CARE Canada provide their services in places like El Salvador, Indonesia, and Sudan. Others, like Alice HousingCentraide, and the Inuvik Youth Centre Society plug holes in the social safety net in Halifax, Montreal, or the Northwest Territories. Every year, billions of dollars in individual charitable contributions by Canadians go to addressing the problems that government resources seem insufficiently allocated to fix.

Historically, religious organizations at home took care of the domestic poor, and Christian missionaries went abroad to convert the heathen—often by way of providing services. The average Canadian donor didn’t necessarily need to think very hard about just what those institutions were doing to alleviate poverty or other problems. Faith in religious leaders at home and lack of access to information about programs conducted abroad meant that individual donors didn’t or couldn’t ask the kinds of questions we can ask today.

When I was a kid there was a dusty coffee can marked “John” on my teacher’s desk. “John” was the class’s foster kid, who existed somewhere in the nebulous country of Africa. We occasionally put coins in the can and that is all I know. That coffee can fairly sums up the relationship that existed between the charitable sector and the public in the 1980s. But recently, giving habits have been changing. In the past decade or so, donors have started to expect something new from charities: data.

It is no longer necessary to take anyone’s word for anything. Additionally, some high-profile scandals—a 1995 misappropriation of funds to the tune of $10 million at UNICEF, the 1992 conviction of United Way’s CEO William Aramony for embezzling $1 million to spend on his teenaged girlfriend—eroded public trust in charitable organizations. Questions about high administrative salaries, religious evangelism, and biased programs followed. The public has lost some of its unquestioning faith in do-gooders, but it has gained some streetsmarts as well as new avenues for finding information.

Charity Intelligence, founded in 2006, has a mandate to assess and rank Canadian charities on four criteria: social results reporting; financial transparency; program cost coverage; and spending breakdown. This new service is an outgrowth of the new data-driven model of charity. “I’m one of those people who on a Saturday afternoon will pour a glass of white wine, sit beside the fireplace, and read audited financial statements—I love it,” says Kate Bahen, their managing director, when I call. She is a retired equity analyst with a tidy British accent, and manages to sound brisk and indulgent at the same time, like a life-coach—“What would success look like for you with this article?” she asks me at one point.

Bahen and her staff have currently assessed 600 of Canada’s registered charities and graded them on a zero-to-four star system. The main problem with Canadian charities right now, Bahen says, is transparency. With many charities, looking at their website won’t give you either a detailed account of the impact their programs are having or a copy of their financial statements. Donors have no way of knowing if a charity is well-run, effective, or in need of money.

To demonstrate how a donor might use Charity Intelligence’s site to find a charity he or she might want to support, Bahen and I take a look at a charity called Farm Radio International. It caught my eye as I was scrolling through CI’s top-rated charities—I like farms; I like radio. Farm Radio, it seems, was started by a CBC producer in 1975 after a bus trip through Zambia. The organization’s mandate is to improve food security in 38 African countries by helping local farmers use radio to access and disseminate new research in sustainable farming practices. The organization scores three out of three stars with CI for financial transparency, and has an A- grade for social results reporting. Bahen tells me the average score in this category is a B-.

I notice that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is listed as one of Farm Radio’s big funders; $1.1 million in 2012. If the Gates Foundation is already giving to Farm Radio, I ask, doesn’t that mean my donation is a bit redundant? “My answer to you is that when I saw that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was funding this tiny charity in Canada,” Bahen says, “that is the highest accolade of impact I’ve ever seen.” When the smartest of the big funders with professional research staff are on board with a charity, it doesn’t mean that donations are now unnecessary—it means that the charity stands up to scrutiny. “What’s Warren Buffet buying? I want to buy some of that too,” she says.

One of the things worth noticing about Farm Radio, Bahen tells me, is its ratio of cash reserves to program costs. CI’s site uses a visual aid of stacked coins—red for reserves, silver for programs. Farm Radio has $308 thousand on reserve, which is only about 18 percent of its annual costs. I tell her I’m not quite sure how to think about the value of low reserves—is it somehow bad for a charity to have too much money? Bahen pauses. “Now, this is controversial,” she says, as she directs me to look at the site’s entry for SickKids, Canada’s largest children’s health facility as well as a renowned research centre in Toronto.

“Oh, wow,” I say, when I see the stacks of coins. “See, I don’t want you ever to say Oh, wow!” Bahen exclaims. The red coins tower over the silver; SickKids Foundation has $918 million in reserve, enough to cover annual program costs 9.9 times. The site has a spot where charities can add their own notes if they’d like to elaborate or contest CI’s assessment, and SickKids has written in to take issue. SickKids argues that the way CI measures reserves implicitly assumes that all reserves are available for use at a given time, which for their organization is not the case. This may be true, but it’s hard not to notice that in the spending breakdown, which CI puts together using information from the charity’s most recent tax filing, SickKids has ten employees who make more than $160 thousand a year. Two make more than $350 thousand. Despite all this, SickKids actually scores pretty well on CI’s index—they get three stars, and an A- grade for social results reporting.

An odd point worth noting: Charity Intelligence is itself a registered charity. You can donate to help them fulfill their mandate of helping donors assess the efficacy of charities. In the ultimate meta-charitable move, they’ve rated themselves: they have a B- for social results reporting, and their three staff members have an average compensation of $58,865 a year.

Charity Intelligence’s US and UK counterparts, GiveWell and Giving What We Can, go a step further than providing a searchable database of rated charities: instead, they do the research for you and then come up with a very short list of recommendations—the charities they believe offer the best value for money. Of GiveWell’s top three, two are deworming programs: Schistosomiasis Control Initiative, which treats people for parasitic worm infections in sub-Saharan Africa; and the Deworm the World Initiative, which focusses on deworming children in a broader range of countries. The third, GiveDirectly, is a system for making cash transfers directly to poor individuals in Kenya and Uganda—this approach is in line with recent research suggesting that cash, which individuals can use as they see fit, is a more effective intervention than services.

Giving What We Can also includes these two deworming programs in its list of four recommended charities worldwide. In addition, it recommends the Against Malaria Foundation, which distributes insecticide-treated mosquito nets in 35 countries, and Project Healthy Children, which works with local governments in developing countries to fortify staple foods with micronutrients like folic acid, iron, and Vitamin A.

Deworming, hardheaded economic experts at both organizations agree, gives the best bang for your buck. It costs between 70 and 95 cents to deworm a child. Schistosomiasis causes diarrhea, liver disease, and sometimes death. And, GiveWell’s website says, “There are two prominent studies arguing that reducing worm infection loads during childhood can have a significant later impact on income.” Both GiveWell and Giving What We Can are narrowly focussed on poverty relief—perhaps because poverty is the problem that responds best to being treated with money.


Donations have been pouring in to the Ferguson public library: 3,000 contributions in 20 hours after the grand jury decision came down. When I first read this headline, giving to a library seemed like a non-sequitur. But schools were closed as protests erupted, and the library had declared that it would open its doors to any child or adult who wanted to gather to read, talk, or simply be together in a community space. The library hasn’t yet announced the total amount of cash raised, but it should be enough to make a real difference. “We need a children’s librarian,” Becky Chisholm, the library’s administrative assistant, told the Toronto Star. “That’s our dream.” Are children’s books and community spaces as cost-effective as deworming? Maybe not, but yes, I thought, as I watched police gas protesters on TV, let’s give to libraries and schools and anywhere people can come to understand each other better.

There are problems that respond to money, but there are other problems that respond to education and exposure to difference: children don’t have worms because someone thinks they should, but black teenagers get shot by police because a sector of society thinks they deserve it.

The problems that have come to a head in Ferguson are nowhere near as simple as deworming. The problems are systemic ones that encompass why black communities like Michael Brown’s are more likely to suffer from poverty, why policing in poor and minority communities is adversarial, and why it’s so hard for members of visible minorities to receive the equal treatment under the law that they have been promised.

When the problem is political, Canadian charities are hampered by their uneasy relationship with state funding and the legal restrictions on political advocacy. Registered charities may only spend 10 percent of their resources on “political activities,” a category that’s hard to delineate. Charities can’t make public statements in support of candidates or campaign for the adoption of specific policies. A charity can issue a report identifying causes of poverty and assessing various proposed solutions, but they can’t advocate for a country-wide minimum income, which some studies indicate would go much further towards solving food security issues for poor Canadians than food banks or soup kitchens.

Charities are in a bit of a Catch-22; their job is to alleviate symptoms of systemic problems they are prohibited from publicly identifying, which might go a long way toward actually solving them. For a problem like climate change, it may in fact be more effective to support the work of non-profits rather than registered charities. Non-profits are not bound by advocacy rules, and since climate change is a regulatory problem that can most effectively be addressed through government action, non-profits may be in a better position to press for change. The catch in this case is that money given to a non-profit is not tax-deductible.

Giving money is not a replacement for political actions like protesting, calling or writing to your MP, or participating in municipal decision-making. One of the differences between taking part in a protest and making a donation is that protests are public—the nation-wide wave of protests expressing the depth of American citizens’ anger over Ferguson builds community in a way that people sitting in their homes making private donations doesn’t. There are problems that respond to money, but there are other problems that respond to education and exposure to difference: children don’t have worms because someone thinks they should, but black teenagers get shot by police because a sector of society thinks they deserve it. Problems that are expressions of the social distance that prevents people from seeing one another as human are best addressed by closing social distances.

Despite the restrictions, charities are inherently political beings. They are often the ones compiling statistics from frontline engagement with social issues, whether it’s food bank use, children living in poverty, or violent assault of sex workers. These independent reports make their way into the news and onto the desks of politicians. Also, many charities provide the opportunity to volunteer. If paying someone else to try to make racism go away doesn’t sound right to you, you can help out at events held by Edmonton’s Centre for Race and Culture, or conduct phone surveys about discrimination in access to housing for Toronto’s Centre for Equality Rights in Accommodation. Some problems are about listening, and some are about helping others speak. We don’t all have the same things to give.


Money certainly isn’t the only way we contribute to our communities. But it is one way. The protesters on Burnaby Mountain will have legal fees (you can contribute to an organization called BROKE to help offset them), and stories about seemingly untouchable public figures will continue to need independent media to break them (you can become a donor to Jesse Brown’s Canadaland podcast through Patreon, or donate to This Magazine).

In reassessing my own charitable donations, I was secretly hoping to find some reason for shifting my monthly donations from the organizations I currently support to a different set—without increasing the overall amount. But alas, on further research, Greenpeace, MSF, and Pivot are all doing important work, and I feel too guilty to pull my donations. Rightly or wrongly, I’ve decided to concentrate my cash donations on areas—environmental stewardship, emergency medicine, and legal challenges to discriminatory laws—in which I don’t currently invest my own time and energy. Maybe I should have gone to law school to become a human-rights lawyer, but instead I went to creative writing school to become a poet. My money already goes to book and magazine publishers (many are registered charities), and my time goes there as well. Since climate change is the number one problem that keeps me up at night, and since I’m sure I have activist friends who think Greenpeace is doing it all wrong, I decided to see what GiveWell has to say about environmental charities.

While GiveWell does not generally see climate change charities as a good investment—the solutions are all based on projections and no one quite knows exactly what will happen—they have generated a short list of a few environmental charities they think might be capable of doing some good. Cool Earth is the one that GiveWell recommends with the most confidence. This organization works with indigenous villages to block developers from cutting rainforest. They help groups develop economic alternatives to selling off their land, and Giving What We Can estimates that their work can reduce greenhouse emissions for about $1.50 CAD per tonne. They are registered, but not in Canada, so the monthly donation I just signed up to make will come out of my pocket. So be it. (Those giving more than $5000 can give it tax-deductibly to Tides Canada, which can in turn give it to GiveWell to give to Cool Earth.)

We often feel ourselves to be small in the public sphere. What charities call “the glow of giving” is not purely altruism; it’s feeling flush with an unaccustomed purchasing power. I can’t buy human rights, but I can add my little drop to the bucket and show it to the government on my tax forms—look, this is what I’d like you to concern yourselves with. This is what I am concerned about. It’s what our votes are supposed to say, but sometimes money helps us talk a little louder. And while we may not like the idea of “consuming” ethical action the way we consume other goods, putting up money can remind us of our investment in the idea of a better world. It allows us to support the efforts of people whose work benefits us all. And if it makes us feel a little more hopeful about our ability to create change, it’s an investment in our own collective optimism—without which, very little can be done.

Hazlitt regular contributor Linda Besner's poetry and non-fiction have appeared in The Walrus, Maisonneuve, and The Malahat Review among other journals, and her radio work has aired on CBC’s Definitely Not the Opera, Outfront, and The Next Chapter. Her first book, The Id Kid, was published in 2011 by Véhicule Press, and was named as one of The National Post’s Best Poetry Books of the Year.