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Between Giving Tuesday (a day unofficially designated for charity donation following American Thanksgiving and Black Friday) and the Christmas season, we are bombarded by pleas from charitable organizations – on social media, TV, billboards, by earnest young people knocking on doors and even old-fashioned snail mail.

So how do you choose where to donate your hard-earned dollars?

There are those who go with their gut or base it on previous experience. Perhaps a loved one has been through cancer, so there is a desire to give to one of many cancer charities. Maybe a local group that feeds the homeless has been particularly visible in your neighbourhood, so that becomes the charity of choice.

Other donors are more focused on the bottom line – wanting to get the best bang for their philanthropic buck. Or a tax write-off.

Some make a deliberate decision to support a smaller charity with almost no profile instead of adding to the riches of a big one with a splashy advertising campaign. There are donors who prefer supporting groups that work internationally; others, nationally, or locally. Then there are those who balk at the notion of giving, insisting that health and social services should be provided by governments, through taxation.

And we can’t forget the skeptics, convinced that health charities are in the pocket of Big Pharma, or an exercise in feeling good without having any real impact.

Whether you sit down and carefully map out your planned giving, or hastily stuff a few bills into the Salvation Army kettle, and whether you spread your giving across a number of charities or give to a single organization, the choices can be overwhelming, especially when you consider that there are more than 86,000 registered charities in Canada.

Thankfully, there are some tools out there to help you choose, or at least provide information that can help you narrow down your choices. One of them is Charity Intelligence Canada, an independent body that produces reports on more than 750 charities across the country.

The organization analyzed the impact of 300 Canadian charities, big and small, and singled out those that deliver the best return: almost seven dollars for every dollar donated, when the average is usually one or two dollars. To assess impact, Charity Intelligence uses what is known as Social Return on Investment, which is a ratio that measures the amount of value created per dollar donated.

Here are the top 10:

  • Against Malaria Foundation, Toronto
  • Canadian Foodgrains Bank, Winnipeg
  • The Citizens’ Foundation, Oakville, Ont.
  • Effect Hope, Markham, Ont.
  • Fresh Start Recovery Centre, Calgary
  • Indspire, Ohsweken, Ont.
  • Lifewater Canada, Thunder Bay
  • Moisson Mauricie, Trois-Rivières
  • Operation Eyesight Universal, Calgary
  • Partners in Mission Food Bank, Kingston

Seven of these groups toil in the field of international health; one focuses on addiction recovery, one on Indigenous education, and there is a food bank.

Charity Intelligence also produces star ratings, from zero to five, for charities in a variety of sectors including animal welfare, religion, environment, education, health and more.

For example, the health charity Autism Speaks Canada earns five stars, as does War Child Canada.

Of course, measuring “impact” is just one yardstick donors can use to make their choices.

Charitable groups are an important contributor to the Canadian economy, accounting for about 7 per cent of the country’s GDP, with annual revenues of more than $279-billion.

What we don’t always realize is that most of that money – about two-thirds, or $183-billion – comes from various levels of government, mostly the provinces. The balance comes from events, grants, sponsorships, the sale of goods and services, and of course, from private donations, which alone total about $18-billion annually.

Charities have struggled mightily during the pandemic, and now many are being asked to do more with fewer resources, especially in the health and social services sector.

Another report, The State of Patient Associations in Canada, which looks at about 1,000 disease-specific charities, also serves as an important reminder that, aside from a couple of behemoths such as the Canadian Cancer Society and the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada, most charities are tiny, with revenues of less than $100,000 and no full-time employees.

And only 7 per cent of health charities actually employ professional fundraisers. Most campaigns are some variation of passing around the hat.

There are a lot of well-meaning groups out there, some more impactful than others, and for well-intentioned donors, it’s not always easy to sort out.

But, with inflation soaring and money tight for most, charitable donations have never been more important.

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