What motivated you to write Cap in Hand?
“I’ve spent a long time working at senior levels with charities. But when I looked around at the sector as a whole, it seemed to me that we really hadn’t made much progress on some very important issues. I wanted to figure out why that was. Was it an issue of resources or were other elements at play? The result was me feeling like I had to write a bird’s eye view of the sector. And that book is Cap in Hand, which looks at what going on behind the green curtain of the charity entire charitable sector.
What was your biggest surprise in researching the book?
Well, I think, and I’m kind of embarrassed to say this, but I think it applies to most people in the sector, even at the most senior level. I had no real firm grasp of how big the charitable sector is and how much money it controls, both in Canada and around the world. In Canada, charities received $246 billion in funding from government, fees for service and donations in 2014. That’s billion with a ‘b.’ And that has doubled in the past 10 years. Charities employ two and a half million people. It’s the second largest segment of the economy after retail. Yet what do we really know about how it operates? The job of this book is to provide give shape to the sector. Where the money comes from, who is receiving the money and how is it being spent.
Can you tell us briefly what the sector looks like?
The charitable sector is like the world in lives in—99% of the resources are in the hands of 1% of the charities, and it is those charities who are raising by far the most money and spending more than twice as much to raise even more money. Many people find the figures shocking. Four hospital foundations on University Avenue in Toronto, for example, spent more than one billion from 2007—2016 on fundraising and promotion. And they are reaping the billion dollar benefits of that, which they are largely spending on bio-medical research based on the priorities of large donors … which ultimately, even if successful, could affect only narrow niches of the population. That’s more than was spent on the three general elections that took place in the same time period. And those same foundations are sitting on $2.3 billion in non-capital assets. In the corporate sector, that would be called “dead money.” In the charitable sector, we could call it “donor-directed dead money.”
There is no synchronicity between the charities and good public policy. We have very wealthy charities spending all kinds of money on fundraising and other charities that are stretched to the limit doing things like trying to stave off the worst global refugee crisis in history. Meanwhile, 348,000 children in the child welfare system in Canada who have no one speaking for them at all.
What’s the early feedback on the book been like?
Well, it’s been great, far more enthusiastic than I could ever have hoped. There seems to be some kind of latent desire for information, a hunger for a rationale that explains why people who in work in charities, and who are working harder than ever, feel like they are not making any progress. And there are many reasons totally outside their control that are coming into play that are affecting all charities. The book is about those dynamics
It must have taken courage to write this book, do you think? You know, taking on the sector you’ve worked in for so many years?
You know, I hear that a lot. Friends and colleagues of mine telling me I’m “courageous” for writing a book about the charitable sector. To tell you the truth, that freaks me out a bit. I don’t think writing in a new way about the charitable sector, and providing factual information about its operations, should require courage. It should require work and careful research, which I’ve done, but not courage.
And I don’t feel I’m “taking on” a sector that I’ve devoted my whole professional life to. I am providing factual information that everyone should understand, that will help many organizations realize the dynamics of what’s happening around them, and allow them to look at their own operations in a way where they can see how they can have more impact.
That it may run counter to some folk’s assumptions about the sector and will require some re-thinking on the part of others … yes. Particularly those who are reaping the benefits of how the sector is currently organized. But shouldn’t we all be operating from the basis of fact, rather than a paradigm of assumptions that were probably never correct in the first place?
We need a modern day view of charity—responsive, searching, visionary and based on facts.
How did you start out working with charity?
I talk about this in the book’s Preface. During the 1980s, I worked for eight years in a shelter for assaulted women. There was no funding for women’s shelters at the time. There was no widespread understanding of violence against women at that time either. So to survive we had to learn how to raise money and awareness. And we did raise a lot of money, mostly through direct marketing; and we did raise awareness, mostly through advocacy. I saw how effective fundraising could be in terms of dealing with social change. In the early 1990s, I left the shelter and started my own consultanting company that did fundraising, communication and advocacy for a broad range of local, provincial, national and international clients. And although I sold my company in 2006, I am still an active consultant. I’ve just become a Principal with The Osborne Group in Toronto.
What is the main issues affecting the charitable sector today?
With the amount of money flowing through charities, the vast majority of it being public money from government, I don’t think we can’t get away from a discussion of impact. Having spent 25 years working in, and observing, the charitable sector, I understand that charities in Canada and around the world have done a good job of being a much-needed Band-Aid solution. What has suffered as a result, however, is that charities have not spent as much time or talent focusing on the problems that bring people to their door—prevention and root causes. And it will be, in my view, a revolving door of suffering until we make a serious attempt at preventing problems and understanding the root causes of problems and directing resources to that area.
So many people working in charities know this, but feel powerless to do anything about it. To me knowledge is power and Cap in Hand’s contribution will be providing information and facts about the sector they are working in. For donors, it provides context for their donation.
What’s your message to charities? The problems, as you describe them, seem almost insurmountable.
I don’t think they are insurmountable problems at all. Right now, this day, charities have it in them—with some externalized analysis, reflection and institutional resolution—to become agents of long-lasting change so that some day there may be no requirement for a better Band-Aid at all. There is no one better situated to do this work than charities. They are full of smart and talented people, some of whom are becoming quite demoralized with the status quo.
If charities take on this mantle of transforming the systems that make people sick, sad, marginalized and poor—and are supported by their donors in doing that work—I am convinced it is within our grasp to turn charity into change, positive change that will impact millions of people in our country and around the world.
What do you want the main takeaway message to be from your book?
I want people to know that the issue isn’t necessarily more money; and that charities can do so much more to be so much more impactful, without having to spend an extra dollar. And that’s got to be good news, right?