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Colin Glassco for Giving Bak Column.
Colin Glassco for Giving Bak Column.

Giving back

Canadians reshaping the charity landscape Add to ...

When Colin Glassco retired and decided to start his own charity, he figured he knew something about startups. After all, he'd spent years in the financial industry and had launched an oil and gas company in Calgary.

That sort of experience, he thought, would be useful. But Mr. Glassco quickly discovered that little of his business expertise prepared him for running a charity and for the most difficult part of it: asking people for donations. "I started with great fear and trembling," he recalled from his home in Calgary. "You just don't want to bug anybody."

He managed to overcome his apprehension, and today, the Glassco Foundation raises about $1.5-million annually to support several programs in Zambia, including clean water initiatives, eye care projects, schools and an orphanage.

"This whole job for me is very emotional," Mr. Glassco said. "When somebody says 'I'll do it,' it's emotional. When the cheque arrives, I get a little tingle. And when I write the tax receipt, I get a tingle."

Mr. Glassco is among a growing number of Canadians who have turned the tables on conventional ideas about philanthropy, and are reshaping the charitable sector in the process. Instead of writing cheques to support worthy causes, these people are starting their own charities, asking friends and family for support - and taking a far more active role in determining how the money is spent.

While overall charitable giving has fallen sharply in recent years - dropping by nearly $1-billion since 2007 - there has been a steady rise in private foundations, which are charities started by an individual or family. In the past seven years, the number of private foundations has more than doubled, to 4,866, and they now hold about $12-billion in assets.

These foundations still represent a fraction of Canada's 85,000 registered charities, but they are one of the fastest growing segments of the charitable sector. Canadians are starting other types of charities as well and contributing to donor-advised funds - where a donor sets up a fund within a charitable foundation and helps direct where the money is distributed. The trend is being driven by a number of factors, including a sense of frustration on the part of some donors who believe they don't get a clear sense of what good their money is doing when they give to a larger charity.

"Families are saying, 'We want to do something in our communities, we want to give back,' " said Hilary Pearson, chief executive of Philanthropic Foundations Canada, a Montreal-based organization that represents private foundations. "But they are also saying, 'We don't want to just simply give it away to another charity. We want to do it ourselves.' "

Starting a charity isn't easy. It can take months and sometimes years for an organization to get charitable status from the Canada Revenue Agency. Once it's established, a charity has to file annual reports to the CRA and follow strict rules about how money is spent and where grants go.

Kim Beatty spent $5,000 getting her Toronto charity, The Children's Book Bank, registered. She and her husband financed most of the operations at first.

"It's a huge, huge undertaking," Ms. Beatty said. She gave up a 20-year legal career in 2008 to start the operation, which provides free books and literacy programs to kids in a downtown neighbourhood. "I worked hard as a lawyer and I work way, way harder as the founder and the kind of acting executive director of this charity," she said.

Ms. Beatty said money is a constant concern, as are logistics, which include picking up donated books, storing them and finding enough volunteers to keep the book bank open throughout the week. The charity needs about $120,000 annually to cover its costs, such as rent and utilities, but Ms. Beatty is hoping to raise $180,000 so she can hire an executive director to take over day to day management. Finding the extra donations won't be easy.

"I wouldn't say there is donor fatigue. But I do worry a lot because I feel like we're constantly going back to our friends and contacts," she said. "I'm getting way more brazen about asking for money than I ever used to be. I don't feel shy any more because I'm really proud of what we are doing."

Ms. Beatty said she is fortunate to have a team of 60 remarkable volunteers. But managing volunteers isn't always easy, either. "It's very, very tricky. You have the same issues that you have as an employer but you don't have any leverage. We have fired volunteers, which is awful."

Despite the challenges, Ms. Beatty has no regrets. The Children's Book Bank has distributed more than 100,000 free books since it opened and is expanding. But she has this warning for anyone thinking of starting a charity: "If you are planning on squeezing it in on your spare time, after your full-time job and between hockey practice, forget it."

That's a sentiment Robin Mednick can relate to. She started Pencils for Kids in 2006 to help children in Niger, West Africa. So far the charity has built three schools, eight kindergartens and a library, and has financed several educational programs.

"It has utterly, completely taken over my life," said Ms. Mednick a lawyer by training who worked on Toronto's bid for the 2008 Olympics. "Nothing has ever enriched me more than this work that I have been doing."

Ms. Mednick, who lives in Toronto, spends most of her time making presentations about Pencils for Kids and raising roughly $120,000 annually, all on a volunteer basis. "If I don't raise a certain amount of money, I just don't spend it," she said. "I don't have the pressure that many organizations will face because they've got salaries and staff."

She said donors want more control over their gifts, but often don't know where to turn. "A lot of people want to do something, they are anxious and they are a bit skeptical. They don't know where their money is going to make a difference," she said. "Sometimes it becomes a paralysis of fear."

The recession and donor fatigue have hurt many charities, particularly smaller ones, such as Lifewater Canada. Thunder Bay resident Jim Gehrels created the charity about 15 years ago and it has built and maintained more than 400 water wells in Liberia, Kenya, Zambia and Nigeria. He runs the operation in his spare time with his wife, Lynda, and recently took a year off from his job with Ontario's Environment Ministry to drill wells in Haiti for Lifewater.

Raising money has been hard and donations have been cut in half. "A lot of people say, 'I gave this year already to Haiti and that's it for the year,' " Mr. Gehrels said from Cap Haitien, on Haiti's north coast. "You do have some donor fatigue."

That's not the only complication. Mr. Gehrels has a degenerative eye condition that makes getting around Haiti tricky. But he isn't complaining. The work with Lifewater "gives me focus and meaning, it's a way to put my faith into action," he said.

"There's joy in it even though at times it's very fatiguing."

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