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Gotcha! The vicious cycle of aggressive charities

How Canadian charities offer pre-emptive gifts to potential donors, and then follow up with a healthy dose of guilt


 
Canvaser Emily Smits, in the black vest, solicits donations on the street in Toronto. (Deborah Baic/Globe and Mail/CP)

Canvaser Emily Smits, in the black vest, solicits donations on the street in Toronto. (Deborah Baic/Globe and Mail/CP)

“Gift enclosed” reads the package, but it encloses only guilt. It’s a calendar featuring a rescued rabbit, a dishevelled polar bear and a request for $35 for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). The following week comes a letter reminding targets that they haven’t yet paid for the calendars. Of course they haven’t; they never ordered them.

Charities in Canada have become feistier this December. Hoping to compensate for a declining number of Canadian donors, charities like PETA are flooding mailboxes, confronting pedestrians and encouraging pre-authorized payments that are difficult to end. However, the desperation has started a vicious cycle, in which Canadians become even less likely to donate when they get annoyed with aggressive altruists.

“There seems to be no boundaries in the charity market,” says Bruce Philp, a marketing consultant and columnist for Canadian Business. He says that charities have “bad behaviour” because they feel their ends justify their means, or because they think they only need one donation rather than a frequent customer—similar to political candidates. “The most horrible marketing in the world is being done by politicians and charities,” says Philp.

To beat each other to the mailbox, charities have been sending out holiday catalogues since November. When Plan International Canada began sending catalogues in 2003, it sent its package ahead of World Vision. Organizations like Oxfam include fine print in their catalogues, noting that the items are actually “symbolic gifts,” which means that the donation will not buy the specific chicken or bicycle as requested but rather go to the organization generally. “That really pisses me off,” says Greg Thomson, a researcher with the watchdog Charity Intelligence Canada. “If you’re trying to be explicit with this menu of things you can buy for $40 or $60 … if you buy a goat, there’s a goat that goes.”

Charities also deter some people who worry the donation will go toward glitzy advertising campaigns. A winter lottery for SickKids includes prizes of $1 million cash and a Jaguar. In the 2016 winter lottery, only eight per cent of the price of tickets went toward the cause, while 92 per cent paid for prizes and the operation of the lottery itself. A Lotto 6/49 ticket is arguably more socially beneficial, as 13 per cent goes to taxes, while charity lottery tickets are tax-deductible. SickKids also just launched its boldest campaign ever, depicting children as superheroes, and it spends around 30 per cent of its annual donation revenue on ads like this. While some potential donors don’t want to support such flashy ads, the charity needs to advertise to stay on people’s radar. As Thomson says, “It’s a bit of a Catch 22.”

The reality is, Canadian donors are in decline. Between 2004 and 2013, the number of Canadians giving to charities dropped from 85 per cent of those aged 15 years and older to 82 per cent, according to Statistics Canada.* Although the remaining donors are giving larger donations, many of the donors are above age 55, so charities need to reach a broader group to be sustainable. “We’re seeing more bold campaigns right now,” says Caroline Riseboro, President of Plan International Canada. “The nature of humans is not that they’re calling up charities and saying, ‘Will you please take my money today?’ So we do need to ask.”

Asking can be awkward. While unsolicited gifts like calendars have been popular since the months following the Second World War, when the War Amps sent out keychains, a newer phenomenon is asking for donations at cash registers. Cashiers sometimes ask customers for donations loudly enough to make them ashamed for declining to donate, a practice known as “chugging” in the U.K. Meanwhile, UNICEF runs a campaign asking people to leave donations in their wills, called “legacy gifts.” While the organization previously confined the campaign to the month of May, it expanded to September and October this year, asking people of all ages to think about their deaths.

Charities do have a code of ethics. Imagine Canada, a body with 1,250 member organizations, sets out fundraising standards. Riseboro of Plan International explains, “Any professional knows philanthropy is not something that should be coerced.” Meg French, chief programs officer of UNICEF Canada, says of the legacy gifts campaign: “If someone’s not comfortable, we end the call right away.”

Ethics aside, critics question the efficacy of some campaigns. Food banks place donation bins in grocery stores during the holidays, even though collecting cash would be exponentially more valuable. “I know it feels good to drop a can of soup in a bin,” says Thomson, “but the logistics of getting it to a warehouse, all mixed up with tuna and macaroni … with [the food banks’]  connections, a $5 donation could buy $20 worth of soup.” Further, at holiday fundraising galas, half the price of the ticket often goes toward the cost of the event. “Think of it as entertainment,” Thomson says.

However, charities wonder why Canadians aren’t more tolerant. As Riseboro notes, people don’t seem to mind receiving free gifts or offers from retailers. “We wouldn’t say, ‘You gave me your flyer in the mail; you’re over-marketing,’ ” says Riseboro. “For some reason, because it’s about philanthropy, we seem to be less forgiving.” Indeed, people may criticize PETA for sending them calendars and overtly asking for donations, yet gladly accept free samples from companies that seek their money but just don’t state their intentions. What gives?


CORRECTION, Dec. 17, 2016: A previous version of this story claimed that the number of donors in Canada dropped from 85,000 in 2004 to 82,000 in 2013. In fact, the percentage of Canadians aged 15 and over who were donors dropped from 85 per cent in 2004 to 82 per cent in 2013.


 

Gotcha! The vicious cycle of aggressive charities

  1. The numbers from stats can in the above are very suspect. “between 2004 and 2013, the number of Canadians giving to charities dropped from 85,000 to 82,000, according to Statistics Canada.”

    The Stats Can website below suggests that 4/5 Canadians are donating – rather more than 85,000.

    While I am not a fan of the fundraising practices mentioned, I wonder whether the piece has been sufficiently researched to make the claims about a donor culture shift that it appears to make.

    http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/89-652-x/89-652-x2015001-eng.htm

    • Sloppy writing and / or editing. According to table 5 at your link, the quote should have been “between 2004 and 2013, the percentage of Canadians giving to charities dropped from 85% to 82%, according to Statistics Canada.”

  2. Too many charities [85,000] and never any visible results.

  3. They’re so aggressive that they even sell your name to other charities. When I get such mail, I keep the gift and use their prepaid envelope to return their letter with a note asking them to take my name off their lists. Otherwise, I have solved the problem by arranging for a monthly donation to my favourite cause. Still, I can’t resist sending something to a few others.

  4. I wanted to do some volunteering . I signed up for this well known Canadian charity that receives lots of money from the federal government.

    Once I found out that my time was free but they were still going to charge the reserve that I was to help $500 per day for my services I realized it was all a big scam to keep a bunch of useless people employed in Ottawa.

    To me before I am willing to donate either my time or my money someone has to prove to me that it is not just a scam to keep the overheads employed.

  5. The more a charity spends trying to solicit me, the less I’m likely to donate to them. I want to know that my money is actually going to do the good I intended and not line the pocket of a professional charity worker. As much as I appreciate the work done at Sick Kids, for example, I’d never buy a lottery ticket. 8%?? If I ever donate to them, it will be a direct donation.

    And a note to retailers: Don’t hit me up for money at the cash register. The likelihood of repeat business is significantly diminished when you do.

    Find a charity or charities that do good work with low overhead and donate there – be it your money or your time. Religious organizations, by and large, do good work (and despite what some think, most don’t ask the faith of those they help). Usually, 100% of the money reaches its intended recipients – and much of it is spent locally. There are a lot of other small charities that likewise do good work with little overhead. Support those. Let the professionals learn they need to rein it in and control their spending.

    • I agree with you about charities nagging you to death. Since the beginning of October and even before a dozen different charities to which I donated previously have been begging me to give just one more gift, or switch over to a monthly donation, or someone out there will double my gift, etc.
      About 20 years ago I used to regularly send Ducks Unlimited a small donation, until I went to the source and learned the CEO was making well over $200,000 a year at a time when I was making less than $10,000 a year.
      There doesn’t seem to be an internet site where all the details of a charity can be had for the taking. I know they have one in the States to put some curbs on charities, but I don’t know of one in Canada. Anybody?

  6. Correction: Charity lottery tickets are NOT tax deductible as indicated in the article. You’re buying a chance at winning something and not making a donation. If you’ve ever received a tax receipt for the full amount of a charity lottery ticket, report it to CRA as the charity is not following receipting rules.

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