I can’t remember when I was this excited for school

Do your research before you donate, student suggests

Nigerian children receiving shoeboxes from Operation Christmas Child.
Nigerian children receiving shoeboxes from Operation Christmas Child.
Photo courtesy of www.demossnewspond.com
Cara Smusiak
Cara Smusiak

It all started with a seemingly innocent e-mail from Ten Thousand Villages asking me to donate a School Kit to help refugee and displaced children get a normal education. It seemed like a great idea: help a child by giving them the tools needed for education. But something made me hesitate.

Maybe it was the remnants of last year’s controversy over Operation Christmas Child, when the AMS cancelled a fundraiser due to its association with evangelical Christian organization, Samaritan’s Purse. Regardless, I clicked on the link in the e-mail to learn more—and I found out my hesitation had merit.

I was redirected to the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), the relief and development agency of Mennonite and Brethren in Christ churches in North America. The MCC, I learned, runs Ten Thousand Villages. Although I believe Ten Thousand Villages’ efforts to provide a source of income to artisans around the world are noble and the MCC’s charitable endeavours are heartwarming, the strings attached are not.

According to Statistics Canada, Canadians claimed more than $6.9 billion in charitable donations on their 2005 tax returns. But how many people really know where their money is going and what it is doing? Samantha King, a Queen’s kinesiology and health studies professor researched the corporatization of breast cancer for her recently published book, Pink Ribbons, Inc.: Breast Cancer and the Politics of Philanthropy. In a statement released in August, King said breast cancer fundraising has become another source of income for corporations who sponsor the cause. According to her research, only 64 per cent of the donations collected by one company during their fundraising walk went to breast cancer organizations. This is just one example.

According to the Canadian Cancer Society’s Annual Report, 33 per cent of revenue supported fundraising initiatives and management in 2005. That amounts to about $50 million in donations funding the operation of the organization, while $91.6 million funds to research, support, prevention and advocacy.

Another shocker: UNICEF Canada allots 25 per cent of its revenue to administration and fundraising costs, with only 75 per cent going to programs. Their Annual Report even boasts that the administration costs are “well below the define acceptable North American standard of 30-35 per cent.”

Some organizations, like War Child Canada, limit administrative costs to less than 10 per cent of total donations.

Why is it that large organizations are spending so much money on administrative and fundraising costs? Are there ways that they could be cutting costs?

Most importantly, are people aware that a considerable percentage of their donation is funding the organization, and not the programs?

Nonetheless, I’d be more likely to donate to UNICEF or the Canadian Cancer Society than I would to the relief programs run by the MCC through Ten Thousand Villages.

Christian churches distribute the MCC kits with religious messages in their school kits. While that is fine with some, it’s not fine with me.

Beliefs can be easily swayed. Think of it like this: If you were a child in Iraq who happens to get a School Kit from the MCC, you may look more favourably on Christianity than if you didn’t receive the gift.

What I found most disheartening was how difficult it was to find out if the MCC includes a religious message with their kits. The information wasn’t easy to find on their website—there was no section specifically addressing the issue—but it became clear.

“MCC encourages exchanges of visits, gifts and prayers between supporters and those with whom we work around the world.” “A carefully planned material aid intervention can benefit the recipient and be a sign of God’s caring and compassion for those affected by adverse conditions. Many who receive these gifts express thanks to the local partner, MCC and the church supporting MCC for thinking about them.” The quotations do not come from the section about the kits, but from a different area of the website altogether.

Information about religious affiliation should have been included with the list or items to include in each kit. Donors should have all the information they need to make an informed decision about whether an organization matches their values and beliefs.

Although I cannot morally support the MCC and other NGOs with religious affiliations, I do respect the right of others to contribute to their aid programs. I'm not saying they shouldn't exist, just that their practices be transparent.

Now that I’m back at Queen’s for another year, I’ll be one of the few people who stop and ask campus groups about where the money goes.

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