Book review: With Charity For All: Why Charities are Failing and a Better Way to Give -

Book review: With Charity For All: Why Charities are Failing and a Better Way to Give

By Ken Stern


With Charity For All: Why Charities Are Failing And A Better Way To GiveCanadians give $8.5 billion a year to charities in support of many worthy causes. But how useful are those donations? Stern claims a great deal of charitable giving is not only misguided and flawed, but counterproductive as well. And he’s convincing enough that a wholesale rethink about what makes charities effective seems in order.

Stern, former CEO of National Public Radio in the U.S., adopts a private sector approach to charitable work—reasoning the characteristics that allow successful corporations to thrive should apply equally well to non-profits. Chief among these factors are internal capacity and rigorous attention to outcomes.

Keeping internal costs low has become a fixation across the charitable sector in Canada and the U.S. Many popular ratings of charities focus almost exclusively on administrative expense ratios. And while excessive salaries or perks can be warning signs of ineffective charities, non-profits that lack proper administrative strength cannot grow, innovate or deliver effective, long-term aid.

A close look at charities drilling wells in African villages, including Kemptville, Ont.-based Ryan’s Well Foundation, brings up many uncomfortable questions about charitable outcomes. Well-drilling organizations often boast of their great success drilling new wells in poor, dry areas, offering shots of happy villagers enjoying their first burst of clean water as proof. But Stern warns it’s one thing to stir up enthusiasm and money for new wells; it’s quite another to track that well, supply replacement parts and keep it in running order for decades. Upkeep of this sort requires significant internal capacity, something most charities have forsaken in their rush to pare administrative costs to zero. And donors generally (and perversely) find the prospect of drilling new wells much more enticing than dreary maintenance. The unhappy result, says the author, is a “charitable failure” consisting of “tens of thousands of abandoned wells across the developed world.”

He advises anyone looking to maximize the impact of their donation dollars to ignore administrative expense ratios, glossy pamphlets and heart-warming anecdotes in favour of the humdrum business of keeping the machinery in good working order, whatever the cause may be.

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Book review: With Charity For All: Why Charities are Failing and a Better Way to Give

  1. There are 85,000 charities in Canada. That’s beyond ridiculous.

    Everybody doing their own thing, bumping into each other, unsustainable, questionable oversight….chaos.

    And when there is chaos….money goes missing. By the truckload.

    If ever anything called for massive downsizing, global monitoring, absolute transparency and strict rules with a very short leash….this is it.

    There is such need in the world…..and plenty of people willing to help…….and yet there is very little to show for it at the end of the line.

    • The 85,000 number is very misleading. Probably close to half of these are individual religious congregation. Every single church, mosque, synagogue, temple across the country has its own charitable registration number. Thousands more are individual affiliates of national organizations (e.g., YMCA, YWCA, United Way, Habitat for Humanity etc.) each of which, again, has its own charitable registration number. When you get rid of all that noise, there are probably closer to 10,000 charities which, given the size of Canada and the local focus of much charitable activity is not that many at all.

      • How does that change anything?

        We still have waaaaaaaaaaaay too many charities.

  2. In the city of Guelph alone, 109 public servants make over $100000. The answers to all of the worlds problems do not exist at any level of government, they exist in the hearts and minds of the passionate individuals in communities around the world. There is much more waste in government and what makes matters worse is they actually download the tasks to the overworked, overstressed charitable sector that do not make anywhere near the same amounts.
    Kevin Cahill Guelph

  3. Wow. Easy to criticize others. What have YOU done? Ryan’s Well is an outstanding charity started by an outstanding young man to meet an outstanding need. Unbelievable that armchair critics could have a national voice. Get out and do something useful.

  4. It’s unfortunate we weren’t contacted before calling into question the impact of our water projects. For the record, here is our response: