Charity mergers and “wealthy big-name donors”


The world of charities—a world I’ve inhabited for more than 25 years—is beginning to drive me a bit crazy.

What are we supposed to think of charities, anyway?

Are they a deer in the headlights responding like the proverbial damsel in distress to events beyond their control? Are they made up of scheming profiteers trying to pick a donor’s pocket? Or are they righteous truth tellers with their shoulders to the grindstone working away at the world’s most intransigent problems?

Are we supposed to believe everything they say? Do they believe everything they say?

It’s hard to know because most of them are at their most verbal when they are asking for money. At other times when their operations may on be view, they default to silence.

Witness the embargo of information and the eventual public announcement of the merger of between the Canadian Cancer Society (CCS) and the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation (CBCF) as reported by Eric Reguly in Donation drop forces merger of Canada’s largest cancer charities on the front page of the Globe and Mail on February 1, 2017. This was the first time any details about the merger were made public.

Two things in the story struck me.

Firstly, the merger was made necessary by the financial situation of both charities. No surprise there. But CCS CEO Lynne Hudson and CCS board chair Robert Lawrie put the financial woes down to “donor fatigue.”

So that’s it, I thought. Right. Donor fatigue. We can all relate to “donor fatigue,” the sector’s reliable old chestnut of an analysis.

But what exactly is making donors tired?

Is it the number of charities asking them for money?

Is it that charities are making incredulous claims they have no ability of actually fulfilling but adding “help to” in the pitch as a caveat?

Is it the constant and annoying chirp of self-styled evaluators, and some charity groups themselves, who rattle on about overhead and fundraising costs?

Or of oversimplifying complex issues so much so that donors have no understanding of the real facts underlying the work of any charity, and so see the charity and their donations as ineffective?

That certainly exhausts me.

So, I’m not faulting the donor if she does feel a bit worn down by the whole thing.

Twenty years ago, I sat on a “blue ribbon” panel looking an emerging issue in the international NGO sector. Donors were losing motivation because they were feeling like their donations weren’t making any difference. Our job on the panel, as charity and communications experts, was to figure out why.

As it turned out, donors believed nothing was changing because that’s precisely the message they were getting from the charities asking them for money. The same pitch all the time. All those pleas for child sponsorship, all those so-called ‘fly in the eye’ pitches that had basically remained unchanged for two decades had done their job.

Because there was no attempt to communicate the bigger picture or pass on the progress that had been made, donors got the message, all right, and the message they got, unsurprisingly, equaled them thinking their donation didn’t make any difference. And where was that message coming from? The charities themselves.

So, if donors are fatigued, the question is who or what is tiring them out.

Since that time, some iNGOs have sought to represent issues in a broader context. Oxfam and Médecins Sans Frontières, for example, have done their best to explain the difficulty of working in complex locations. Foster Parents Plan changed its name in 2006 to Plan Canada saying it “better reflect[s] how we work.”

But, we must remember, the “donor fatigue” analysis isn’t actually born out by fact.

The amount of tax-receipted donations made to charity by Canadians has increased every year in the past ten years in Canada. (This despite the Globe story referring to some mumbo-jumbo from the Fraser Institute about how the amounts of money donors are claiming on their income tax returns is decreasing. That might be true, but it also has nothing to do with the amount of money people give. Up to 40% of charitable contributions is never claimed on tax returns.)

The rub—and the issue here—is that the amount of money is coming from fewer Canadians.

Which brings me to my second point about the CCS/CBCF merger.

According to the Globe story:

“Now that the merger is completed, Mr. Lawrie and Ms. Hudson said they will address the new group’s funding model. The idea is to approach wealthy big-name donors and form partnerships with other cancer charities to pool research funding.”

Crikey. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard a charity utter those very words in the past 25 years, I’d be one of those “wealthy big-name donors.”

Plus there can be a few (pretty significant) issues with “wealthy big-name donors.” And that is a good many of them have their own agenda and it may or may not have anything to do with the best interests of people who have cancer or might get it.

I’ll let an article in the New York Times, How to Cover the One Percentby Michael Massing lay out the basics of the argument. He is writing about the U.S., but what he says is applicable to Canada:

As the concentration of wealth in America has grown, so has the scale of philanthropy. Today, that activity is one of the principal ways in which the superrich not only “give back” but also exert influence …

“When donors approach a nonprofit, “they’re more likely to say not ‘How can I help you?’ but ‘Here’s my agenda…’

“… much of today’s philanthropy is aimed at “intellectual capture.”

The point is that big donors often want big input. And why is it important not to have “wealthy big-name donors” controlling the future of an organization?

For one thing, there’s the issue of independence—of charities being able to set the priority actions on their issues, especially in the cancer economy, where hundreds of billions of dollars are spent globally each year.

In 2014, the World Health Organization’s World Cancer Report estimated the “total annual economic cost of cancer” at USD $1.16 trillion, more than 2 per cent of the global GDP.

Someone once told me their mother used to say, “money makes people funny.” And there are all kinds of motivations for donors wanting their name slapped on cancer research facilities when there’s that kind of dough in play.

Scientific and program independence in the cancer research world is worth so much right now. (You will really have to read my book, Cap in Hand, to get to the bottom of that. But please take my word for it here.) Charities sometimes go unheralded because of their desire to attract big donors and simplify their message. And not to put too fine a point on it, but …

The Canadian Cancer Society is the most important cancer charity in this country by a big long Canadian country mile and its independence from “donor-directed” dollars is critically important.

CCS been knocked around a bit by self-styled charity evaluators because of their fundraising costs. But you try to raise $150 million a year in tens and twenties, wait for the bill to come in and then come talk to me. And that method of fundraising has assisted them in their independence.

(Muting the noise from the so-called charity evaluators would certainly help us better understand the huge shifts and baffling priorities in the charitable sector right now. For more than a decade, they have been nothing but a distraction from substantive debate. Besides we have a big-boy charity regulator in this country called the Canada Revenue Agency which has a good many tools in its arsenal to deal with charities who break the law, tools that are much more surgical than the issuance of annual “top ten lists” or “standards” programs.)

But despite these knocks and the bureaucratic nightmare of running a national, chapter-based organization in Canada, the CCS provides 30% of the total funding by the charitable sector towards cancer research (which makes up 27% of total cancer research funding). It is a lead funder in prevention and population research. And it is singular in the nature of its activities and holistic understanding of cancer in Canada and the world.

It has uniquely challenged itself with a prevention mandate, a mandate understood to be hugely difficult to fundraise for, but they work on it anyway because it is the right thing to do.

It spends money to lobby in Ottawa. And despite the jitters some people feel when the word lobbying is mentioned, there probably isn’t one piece of anti-smoking legislation in Canada that doesn’t have the CCS initials on it somewhere.

These actions have already saved lives. Smoking rates for men have declined, for example. For women, they’ve evened off. Regulation of smoking as played a huge part in that trend. And who forced government’s hand on regulation? CCS, who were also involved in taking tobacco companies to court.

Right now, there are CCS policy analysts in Ottawa talking about regulation of tanning beds and palliative care. These activities are trying to deal with the source of the problem.

CCS have been pioneers in coordinating work with other cancer charities, in the lab with scientists, in the halls of power with legislators, and with public policy experts, such as the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC).

Thousands of CCS volunteers work in communities across the country assisting patients with drives to appointments and other day-to-day-today activities. They run programs designed to help people quit smoking. For years, their message has been “we’re trying to stop cancer before it starts.”

No other organization in Canada comes close to the breadth of what CCS does on the cancer front.

And to think that its independence might be jeopardized because a “wealthy big-name donor” will contribute money, but also will also determine what that money is spent on would be a huge loss to the country and to those at risk of contracting the disease.

To me, that’s a scary thing.

The concern is that when you talk about donations from “wealthy big-name donors,” you can pretty well add “donor-directed” to the equation. And the question is will big donors want to get on board with CCS’s prevention/policy/lobbying agenda that positively impacts hundreds of thousands of people or bring their own agenda to the table, such as biomedical research into a rare form of cancer that impacts a very few.

History tells us big donors most often want to fund their own projects and values. And typically prevention or lobbying hasn’t been high on their list of those priorities.

I understand the financial pressures the CCS must feel. I really do.

And I understand they might feel prepared to do almost anything to make it work. Half a loaf is better than none, right? But I’m afraid the path they have chosen —the path of the “wealthy big-name donor”—will not yield the results they, and Canadians, need.

The CCS and other charities must start telling it like it is. The real stories in the cancer world like the importance of prevention, of lobbying government, of righting the imbalance of how cancer dollars are spent, of coordinating work internationally, of how much it costs to get donors involved.

I don’t want to be overly dramatic here (heaven knows) but, based on my work and research, I think we may be seeing the beginning of the end of the charitable sector as we’ve known it.

The problems run so deep and the growing inequity among charities is unsustainable. Issues have been oversimplified for years, systemic problems have been ignored, charities’ reluctance to engage on issues is problematic, and the cost of raising large number of small donations is growing because response rates are shrinking. The solutions being pursued are doubtful.  And we’ve travelled so far down a deeply troubling path, it will be difficult to get back.

Sadly, those who will suffer from a sector breakdown, and who are suffering from the sector’s current priorities, are the sickest, youngest, poorest and most marginalized among us, the people who charities exist to help.

It does no person or institution any good not to have hard questions asked of them.

And the charitable sector has suffered from a lack of appropriate critique for a very long time.

So, perhaps viewing the current modus operandi of the charitable sector in our rearview mirror will not be a bad thing.

We need charities that are fact-driven, externally focused, mission-bound, able to articulate their position and account for their work; organizations that are modern, dynamic and responsive.

This CCS/CBCF merger does offer these two organizations a fresh start (and kudos to them, despite their lack of transparency, for at least having the courage to say ‘things aren’t going well, let’s try to fix it.’)

But seeing that fresh start in the arms of “wealthy big-name donors” concerns me to no end.

The answer, part of it anyway, lies in articulating the full story about cancer in this country and around the world. Listen to what your own experts are telling you. Make the cancer story a story based on fact, not a manufactured story distilled into so many slogans like  “conquering cancer” or “going on a cancer journey.”

But in order to fix the problems they need to be understood in the first place. That means getting a better grip on overall sector dynamics, doing some self-examination in light of those dynamics, changing course, being more open, and appealing to Canadians’ heads as well as their hearts. It won’t be easy.

The question is, despite the high stakes, whether the Canadian charitable sector up to this task?


I am really not sure.

And that is what’s making me crazy.

Author Photo 01 Sandy Tam PhotographyGail Picco, one of the country’s foremost experts on the increasingly complex dynamics in the charitable sector, is a strategist and author who has worked in the charity sector for 25 years. In addition to being Your Working Girl, she is the author of What the Enemy Thinks, a recent novel set in the nonprofit sector and writes a regular column for Hilborn Charity eNews. She is a Principal with The Osborne Group in Toronto and chairs the Regent Park Film Festival. You can order her most recent book, Cap in Hand: How Charities are Failing the People of Canada and the World by clicking here. 

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  1. Ken Wyman says:

    Cancer is one of at least three big mergers including United Way Toronto and York Region and now the three eastern Ontario United Ways. After decades of splits and splinters is this going to be trend?

    Will donors who gave $50 to each now give $100 to the combined group? Or will one raise less than two?

    Savings in the back office and economy of scale might lead to lower costs. Maybe.

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