Photo: ID 16766837 © Andrey Kiselev
Photo: ID 16766837 © Andrey Kiselev

By Jessica Kirby –

There is a story I tell the kids about the existence of Santa—No, I say … the guy in red doesn’t arrive in the night and leave things behind. But the story of his selfless generosity is quite real. When we think about giving to others – really giving, out of love and the joy we get from another’s happiness – therein lies the essence of the holidays. Yes, I tell the kids, the Santa story is real because the thing he symbolizes is quite real, and if we really give with the heart, we do justice to that story.

The holidays are a busy time for the non-profit giving industry, which speaks to Canadians’ attachment to the real meaning of the holidays. Food banks, soup kitchens, and homeless outreach programs across the country rely heavily on Christmas generosity, calling this the time they earn the bulk of donations and can reach the most people in need.

If giving in your community, or to another community with needs that resonate with you, you want to be sure your donation is effective and reaches the most people possible. I hate to say it, but the playing field is definitely not level when it comes to financial stability or efficiency in non-profits and in some cases, it is downright shameful.

  Money Sense magazine publishes a yearly Charity 100 list, assigning scores to Canadian charities for Efficiency (How much of every $100 donated goes to operational costs), Fundraising Efficiency (What it costs to raise every $100), Reserve (Cash stores), and Governance (Transparency in governance).

Receiving a high grade means spending 80 per cent or more of each donated $100 on the actual cause, and fundraising should cost $10 or less for every $100. Of course, no rating system is perfect and the magazine doesn’t rate every charity out there, but it is a decent gauge.

The 2016 list shows a number of top scorers in the religious category and among specific branches of the United Way. The more specific the niche, or the more honed on a specific community, the better the performance, which is fantastic because it soothes a Pavlovian response to giving—the more positive change we see in our communities, the more we give. Hospital Foundations show perpetually low scores, usually because of low grades in the Cash stores category, which is understandable given healthcare costs. There are, however, some common Canadian charities that scored high across the board.

Free the Children, a foundation started by Marc and Craig Kielburger and later renamed WE Charity, currently focuses on youth initiatives that teach social activism, learning about social justice, and international development projects in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Though the original 2005 mandate was to raise awareness of and help change child labour, the current vision is focused on empowering young people and changing the world by teaching them to be active global citizens. The organization brings 92 per cent of its earnings to the people and communities it helps, and only spends $2.92 for every $100 it raises. It scored a B on cash reserves because it only banks around two months of operating costs at a time, but its Governance scored a perfect A+.

Canadian Tire’s Jumpstart program gives 86 per cent of its donations back to the communities it serves by way of funding and subsidies that help kids 4-18 who struggle financially become involved in organized sports through covering equipment, registration, and transportation costs. The group spends $8.36 to earn $100, and one of its best features is the money earned in each community goes back to that community, giving donors a sense of intimacy in their contributions.

President’s Choice Children’s Charity, which funds $10 million worth of nutrition and food programs for children each year, scored straight As with 93 per cent efficiency and $4.28 in costs for every $100 raised. Though smaller, community focused charities are more likely to encourage a circular giving economy in Canadian locales, there are people who choose causes based on large size or a specific cause, such as feeding children, so it is worth a mention.

The War Amps, BC Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and Toronto International Film Festival are all top rated as well—see for yourself at Money Sense’s Charity 100 web page.

Microlending is by far one of the most effective and far-reaching types of international aide developed in recent history, largely because donors choose their projects, and their investments can be used over and over again to fund many different projects. The largest microlending project is Kiva, which spans the globe and is fuelled by a powerhouse board of directors including people involved with Internet sensations like eBay,, WebMD, Airbnb, PayPal, and Apple.

Kiva was founded in 2005 in San Francisco with a mission to connect people through lending to alleviate poverty. People looking to create a better future for themselves and their communities by establishing small businesses can apply for interest-free microloans that are crowdsourced from around the world.

Loans are exactly that—no interest, direct loans with flexible terms. Most importantly, they are not donations and they operate on principles of mutual dignity. Projects are approved and listed on Kiva’s website and crowdsourced for funding. Lenders can browse a project database and contribute to projects that are meaningful to them. Once a loan is repaid, the funds go back to the lender or can be placed towards another project.

The process is straightforward because 100 per cent of every dollar goes to funding loans—Kiva covers its administrative costs through donations, grants, and sponsorships.

Kiva has 2.2 million borrowers in 82 countries. These borrowers have secured $933.3 million from 1.6 million lenders since the organization’s inception, and boast a 97.2 per cent repayment rate. Nearly 82 per cent of Kiva borrowers are women establishing small businesses or going to school with a plan to establish some type of economic contribution in their communities.

Alternative Gifts International (AGI) lists some fantastic start-up programs for families that offer a sustainable, self-sufficient way of life for families in economically challenged locales. Through Community Coalition for Haiti’s Help Create a Small Family Farm program, donors can provide a goat, a trio of turkeys, or a beehive to a struggling family in Haiti—the family will then receive training and support to provide nutritious food for themselves and the community.

AGI offers access to Sustainable Harvest International’s Start a Food Supply program, which teaches families in Belize, Honduras, and Panama to grow a diverse food supply and marketable crops. Donors can fund a chicken coop or a kitchen garden for one family to help support its self-sufficiency and access to nutritious food. Another option offered through AGI is Milk & Cookies to End Malnutrition, a Partners in Development project that provides health care, specially formulated nutritional cookies, or daily cooked meals to malnourished children in Guatemala and Haiti.

If giving green closer to home is more your style, consider some earth-friendly gift ideas you can rest assured make a big difference to the people and animals who need it most. All of these gifts can be made in your loved one’s name and will have a longer-lasting effect than a trinket from the mall.

For the environmental trickster, give dung—that’s right, through Oxfam you can gift farmers in need with organic fertilizer for an easy $12. Give the gift of preservation for the butterfly lover in your life with a donation to preserve monarch butterfly trees in Mexico through Forests for Monarchs. Adopt an Octopus through Oceana to help protect marine animals from cruise ship pollution and unsafe energy production; or, give your prairie gal or guy the gift of feeding buffalo on the Great Plains of Mexico for an entire year through Nature Conservancy.

If your loved one is a people lover, consider Bikes not Bombs, which restores and brings bikes to economic development projects through international programs in African, Latin American, and the Caribbean. History buffs will love being titled a Scottish Lord or Lady along with preserving a square foot of Scottish land from development through Lord or Ladyship, and the word nerd in your life will love the adopt-a-word program through I CAN that helps fund support for children with communication difficulties.

The world is a big place, and many, many people need our time, empathy, and outside funding to get by in the world. Obviously we want to stretch our dollars and reach as many people as we can, which means taking a little extra time this holiday season (and all year long) to investigate the efficiency of our donations is well worth the time and effort. Believe me: Santa would approve.




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