Don’t donate to charity


Admit it – you hate seeing the constant emails and Facebook requests for charity donations as much as I do. Come on… Admit it… My Facebook wall seems less like a gathering place for my friends and more like a sad open air market where people look for handouts to their favourite charity of choice. Most recently, I have been spammed by my friends to donate to the Underwear Affair, a fund-raiser that supports research on cancers below the waist.

“But it’s for a good cause!”

Really now?

My answer is, and always will be: “Hell no.” Here’s why.

Charities don’t exist to simply funnel money from you, the donor, to the chosen cause. The biggest charities are run much like a business, with huge investment funds and equally huge administrative salaries. Not all charities use your donation dollars efficiently, as Money Sense magazine found. On average, a Canadian not-for-profit health-based charity takes 10 to 30 percent of all its donations as part of its operating costs. So your $100 is actually whittled down to $90 or less before it reaches the recipient. For many charities, it’s even worse – there are many on the list that take 50 to 60 percent of your money for themselves.

And the Underwear Affair?  Well, they’re affiliated with the BC Cancer Agency, which is not on the list surveyed by Money Sense magazine. However, looking at similar cancer organizations such as the Canadian Cancer Society, we quickly see that 40-60 percent of donations given to these charities is spent on fund-raising, administration and management.  NOT “curing” cancer.  While you’re at it, check out those CEO salaries – never knew non-profits paid so well, did you?

So the Underwear Affair raised $633,000 dollars this year.  Let’s conservatively estimate that 50% was diverted into non-program costs such as administration and salaries, based on the Money Sense average numbers.  That leaves about $316,000 left for “curing cancer”.  What does that get you?

  • 17 Masters students for one year – they probably won’t produce any papers OR
  • 12 PhD students for one year – hopefully they’ll at least produce one paper! OR
  • 9 post-doctoral fellows – they damn well better produce a paper or the principle investigator will kick them out! OR
  • 1 principle investigator who holds a university and hospital appointment

These are the people doing the research folks.  And after funneling money into fund-raising and administrative costs, there ain’t much left to hire them.  But what about reagents and supplies you say?  Sorry – $316,000 is not enough to keep an average sized lab running for very long.  Perhaps a year, depending on the size.  Major health funding agencies give grants of  hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars per year.  This is what a lab requires to sustain itself.  A few hundred thousand?  You’re better off calling for your favorite researcher and offering to buy them a new PCR machine!  Giving money through a charity is usually not efficient.

But if you still feel like donating money to a non-profit?  Money Sense recommends searching for charities that take 15 percent or less in administrative costs.  Have a look at their list and decide for yourself. (Select the charity category via the links just above the table)

What do you think about donating to charities? How have you helped out your chosen cause?

Photo Credit: Ottawa Citizen

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  1. It is pretty brutal how much some of those charities profit. The one that really bugged me was the Joseph Kony video that went viral a little while back…the one about African child soldiers. That organization was using the majority of the proceeds just to make more videos of whatever the hell they wanted. Talk about exploitation. Then a few weeks later the guy running that organization gets caught running around downtown masturbating in public. I guess some of those proceeds went to some good drugs too.

    • CF says:

      Oh man, you have no idea how much that one pissed me off. I was on a social media rampage, lol. “Raising awareness” my ass… :p

  2. I generally choose to donate my time instead of my money. That way I can see exactly what the impact is that I’m having. Donating money is just putting too much trust into the organization to appropriately use it.

    On another note, I would hope that 17 Master’s students could produce at least one paper between them, lol.

    • CF says:

      Haha… that was meant to be tongue-in-cheek, I hope it came across like that!

      I was thinking of life sciences students in particular. After one year of graduate studies, most of them are still doing classes and figuring our their projects. I agree that 17 Masters students should produce quite a few papers, eventually.

  3. Administrative costs for not-for-profits are a little alarming. I do donate, but only to smaller charities where my money will make a difference. A $20 donation to a dog rescue that is run by only a couple people typically goes to the dogs’ medical care, etc. And $50 to CAMFED, my favorite charity that sends women and girls to school in third world countries, goes a long way. But toward cancer research? We’re just assuming that they haven’t found a cure for cancer yet (which, I’ve heard they have, but for financial reasons the governments won’t buy into it)

    • CF says:

      It’s true, a lot of smaller charities rely on volunteer efforts and can focus more money towards the cause. I like smaller charities myself because they often have a larger local impact, which I think is important.

  4. I will choose to disagree with you on this one 😛
    Yes, there are some charities (frequently event-based ones) where the operating costs are extremely high. There are others, where they run on shoestring budgets, so while by % the overhead costs are large, what they manage to do with the money is very, very good. For example, the local arts council where I live. Yes, the bulk of their funds go toward the staff salary, telephone line, website, etc, but that allows them to facilitate a ton of programming. When they host a movie festival, for example, the fees for the movies (depending on the genre) aren’t terribly high, but the promotion, logistics, etc take tons of time. Not everything can be done by volunteers, even skilled ones.
    So – I would say, yes, charities are deserving, no it doesn’t come down to straight % to overhead. Pick the ones that are important to you.
    If you would like to donate to cancer, contact a university lab and donate directly.

    • CF says:

      I think as long as donors are aware of where their money is going, it is definitely a personal choice. For me, the idea of my $100 being converted into $70 or $60 after admin costs is unacceptable. It might be an acceptable trade-off for others.

  5. I think this provides an easy excuse to keep your wallet closed. How dare these non profits pay their staff! If you want to donate, do your research, sure. But if you want your money to go 100% toward the cause, choose “homelessness” as your cause, and give $5 to every person you drive past until you reach $100. Only administrative cost is your transportation.

    • CF says:

      It’s an easy excuse if you are not inclined to be charitable at all, but I think you can still be charitable without donating money.

      For me, I will almost never donate money, but I’m happy to donate food to the food bank, clothes and toys to the Salvation Army, and my time to local libraries, marine mammal rescue efforts, and community festivals. I’ve worked with lots of great charities over the years as a volunteer and I do not regret any of the time I’ve given.

    • I don’t donate to the homeless in my area in this way. If I have some food or something on me, sure, I’ll give them that. But I know someone who gave this way once, and the next day when he didn’t have anything to give the guy assaulted him in an attempted robbery. Another city I lived in I saw a guy dressed all homeless with a cardboard sign wheel his wheelchair into my parking garage, stand up, put the wheelchair in his trunk, and they pull away in his fancy new sports car. No good, man. Donating like this is for people with bigger hearts than me.

      • CF says:

        Oh that’s terrible! 🙁

        The homeless around here are generally harmless, but I would not give them money. The one time I’ve tried to give food, it was rejected.

  6. When I donate, it’s usually as a gift to someone else. And then only to charities that I know use a large portion of their profits to directly influence their cause. So many take too much for administration. I know those people have to get paid, but if you’re in this line of work hopefully you’re willing to sacrifice a little bit of your pay for the cause. It’s a toughie.

    • CF says:

      It’s good that you donate to charities that you know about! If everyone did a teensy bit of research before donating, donor dollars would be much more effective.

  7. CF says:

    Hey everyone,

    Don’t take my word or Money Sense magazines word at face value – You can easily look up the financial data of Canadian charities from the Canadian Revenue Agency. Check it out here:

    Just search for the charity, then click on the tax return link at the bottom and choose the year you’re interested in. Most of the financials (how much spent on admin, fundraising, etc.) can be found under “Detailed Financials”.

  8. I do have a problem with giving money to mega-charities like World Vision, but I am aware that there will always be admin costs when I donate money to say the children’s hospital. But I’ve worked for non-profits before and those admin charges helped give me a job. I’ll definitely take a look at that list though!

  9. Michelle says:

    I like helping out with my time and donations as well, but maybe it’s because I like to help but don’t have any money! I don’t think it’s terrible that the charities pay the staff or use the money to make other videos (as long as the staff isn’t overpaid like those in your chart–geez! And as long as the videos they make are to raise more awareness.) I do think that charities can do a lot of good for the world, and for the most part–their hearts are in the right place. I don’t have any problem with non-profit organizations, but I do commend you for writing about how you feel…even when you knew it might ruffle some feathers. 🙂

    • CF says:

      Haha… I try not to be controversial too often…

      Mostly, I just want people to be more aware of what they’re giving their money to. If they’re okay with it, then that’s all that matters.

  10. Gekko says:

    I don’t give money to charity but I help people from time to time(money, food, clothes etc). I wish to help more people, less fortunate then me, but I’m not a milionaire. Maybe when I win on lottery….

  11. TB at BlueCollarWorkman says:

    I’ve heard more than once that Americans are the most generous country as far as giving to charity goes (that’s % of people’s money that they give, not total money). BUt reading this makes me think that Amricans are the easiest people to dupe! I don’t give to charity actually, I give money to homeless people I see, I give money to my daughters girl scout troop, I help ppl stranded on the side of the road… I always thought I should just directly help the people I wnat to. Not indirectly by donating money.

    • CF says:

      I think things like helping out your daughter’s girl scout troop or people stranded on the side of the road is great – you know what your time/money is going towards.

      I think that’s the big thing with the charities I mentioned above – people give soooo much money, but they don’t always know what they money is going towards.

  12. Eddie says:

    I don’t donate to any charities, and typically don’t give money to those asking for it at malls or in front of stores. And not because I’m cheap, but exactly for the reasons you mentioned above.

    • CF says:

      I agree. It’s interesting because people research things like electronics, cars, mutual funds and stocks all the time before purchasing. Why should donations to charities be any different?

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