Asking charities for financial accountability isn’t unreasonable

I am strongly opposed to the heavy reliance on charity as a means of social support, but since our society is currently structured to provide many social services through charities, I donate according to my abilities — which are a bit limited at the moment. I also work towards a society in which this is not the case, one where the social safety net is sufficient to meet the needs of the populace, one where charity isn’t necessary, as universal programmes are far more efficient and egalitarian than a slew of separate organisations in a haphazard patchwork struggling to provide services, sometimes directly competing with each other for resources.

I do not, however, offer up funds willy-nilly, and the same would be true even if I were quite wealthy and able to toss millions or thousands around without paying much attention. Before I will give to any charitable organisation, I research it, because I want to determine where the money goes, how it is used, and whether my contribution will be applied in a meaningful way. If a fundraiser, for example, brings in hundreds of thousands of dollars but the cause gets less than one hundred thousand, that is suspicious and troubling to me. I want to know where that money went, and why the cause didn’t see as much of it as it should.

The notion that people being asked to donate — whether it’s funds or goods, in-kind donations for auctions, gift certificates, etc  — who ask for an accounting are being somehow offensive is both weird and alienating to me. Here’s the thing: Charities are registered as such for tax purposes, and one of the requirements they must meet is the provision of publicly available records about their financial activities. Such records must include a full accounting of funds taken in and how those monies were used. At a bare minimum, people should read the annual report of a charity to get a personal look at where their money went. If you care about homeless cats or breast cancer patients or the local hospital, don’t you want to make sure that your $100 cheque or donated fine art piece for an auction actually went to the cause you care about, rather than into the pockets of administrators or the mysterious ‘other costs’?

And don’t you want to know how the charity administers services? If it’s a domestic violence charity, does it exclude trans women and those with substance abuse problems from its shelters? Because I personally don’t want to donate to a charity that does, and I would like to find a group that provides such services freely to everyone who needs them, without discrimination. If an organisation maintains a shelter for abandoned animals, I want to be able to inspect the facility, to see the living conditions for animals, to access adoption and euthanasia statistics, to see how staff interact with the animals. If the shelter is filthy and animals are allowed to suffer with untreated medical problems rather than getting veterinary care, I don’t really want to contribute my funds to the organisation. If a group working on an urban planning initiative doesn’t have a sustainable and clearly outlined plan, I see no reason to effectively flush my money down the toilet.

I want to select groups that are egalitarian, committed to their cause, focused, and sustainable. Take the Fort Bragg Food Bank, for example, which uses funds highly efficiently, provides services to anyone who asks for them, and tries to provide as much social support as possible. It doesn’t just feed its clients, but also offers needed supplies like clothing and menstrual supplies. It helps coordinate vaccination clinics for animals on the premises, recognising that some of its customers have pets who need care but can’t get it. Staffers and volunteers alike are working as part of a sustainable organisation with a long record and firm plans for the future. Donating to the food bank has excellent long-term results for the population its serving, making it an efficient choice of my (cash) donations.

When I raise these issues with people, or have the audacity to ask people soliciting donations directly, people get very offended. When representatives of charities act put-upon because I’m asking for financial accountability, want to know how much their organisation made at an annual fundraiser, or want more information about the charity’s operations, it makes me not want to donate to them. At a bare minimum, people acting as solicitors should be able to provide me with copies of the annual report, administration policies, and earnings breakdowns. I need to be able to see that a free clinic, for example, dedicates a substantial portion of funding to purchasing supplies, managing overhead in the form of rent and utilities, paying service providers, and so forth, with a very small percentage going to administrators. I want to see who is getting those services — is it need-based? How do people demonstrate financial need? Does the organisation turn some prospective clients away, and why? When it holds fundraisers, how are they run, and where does the money go?

These are not unreasonable questions to ask. In fact, they’re pretty basic questions to ask. Anyone considering charitable donation should ask them and groups should be used to getting them and responding accordingly. The fact that people get offended by the notion of financial accountability really illustrates the role that charities play in our culture, as a way to buy ourselves out of guilt, as a pro forma move to make ourselves feel better about social inequality. The point isn’t the work the groups are doing, for many donors, but rather that they’re giving funds and they can pat themselves on the back over it. I for one am tired of it.

Image: donate, Kathryn Harper, Flickr