Philanthropy 101

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Sometimes we give to charities out of habit or just because somebody knocked on our door. Maybe there’s a better way.

What is needed is staggering; there are more than 160,000 nonprofits and registered charities in Canada – and they all need money and time. So where is a family to start?

Maggie Leithead, president of Charity Village, an online resource for Canada’s nonprofit industry, says the top three reasons people give are:

  • because they feel compassion for those in need;
  • because they personally believe in the cause;
  • because they are personally affected by the cause.

There may be a fourth reason: because they’re solicited.

For families on the road to philanthropy, Leithead has a few key steps to get started:

Instead of responding to direct mail or that knock on the door, sit down as a family once or twice a year and talk about giving.

Ask, ‘What’s happening in our community or around the world that is meaningful to us?’ It might be as simple as the park down the street that needs a new set of teeter-totters. Or, you notice one of your kids is engaged by something seen on the news, such as the need for clean water in Africa or saving the rainforest.

In this way, you don’t have to feel guilty when you say “No” to all those people who solicit your support. You’re concentrated on making a meaningful contribution to the causes your family cares about. You can always bring those other causes back to the table when you have your next discussion around philanthropy.

All charities are nonprofits but not all nonprofits are charities. A registered charity can issue tax receipts for donations whereas nonprofits can’t. Word to the wise: Charitable registration numbers contain nine digits and end with RR01. If you are quoted anything else, it is not a registered charity.

Visit the websites of your selected charities and ask them for their annual reports. There are no shortcuts to intelligent giving, says Kate Bahen, cofounder of Charity Intelligence, a registered charity that researches and analyzes Canada’s charities so donors know they are giving to charities with proven results. It provides its findings free of charge at

“You want transparency,” she says. “If they are unwilling to provide their audited statements, then think twice.”

Find out what’s happening in your community with groups such as Rotary, Lion’s and Optimist clubs and the United Way. Chances are they are providing grants to organizations in your community. Ask them who they think is doing good work.

Lots of charities launch big campaigns around Christmas when many people are feeling the most generous and reflective of their legacy. This is a good time to revisit your family’s philanthropic goals. Come back to it again at the start of summer holidays. This will make philanthropy part of the family calendar year after year.

Volunteering is a great way to demonstrate to your kids the values you are trying to instill. Bahen, who has three children, says, “Every Halloween we dress up in our costumes and visit a local senior centre. The residents look forward to it.”

After 9-11, her children wanted to do something nice for local firefighters. “My son loves to make apple pies, and so the kids brought our homemade pies to the fire station as a way of saying thank you for what they do.” Her community collects old towels for local vets and the humane society and the kids sort them, launder them and help deliver them.

We each will give in our own way, but it makes sense to start by communicating as a family and then doing our homework so every dollar and every hour we contribute counts.

Volunteering can be good for your health

According to a study published in the Mayo Clinic Women’s HealthSource magazine, older people who volunteer at least a couple of hours a week have lower rates of heart disease and live longer than peers who don’t volunteer. Volunteering can also improve social connections and provide a sense of purpose, key factors in preventing depression.

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