The Radical Act of Giving

I’ve been working in the charity/not-for-profit sector since 2003. I’ve been around the block and developed quite a bit of scepticism for charities. I understand why my generation is the least likely to donate. I get why people are suspicious of how funds are used. I appreciate that the approach of some charities is off-putting. But I also know how underpaid and overworked most staff who work for them are.

These are organisations totally strapped for resources, not just financially. To work for charity is to be a generalist. It’s necessary. When you see administration costs of 20%, understand this is paying someone a (barely) living wage to process donations, send out thank you letters, manage a database, a website, email and online marketing and give support to fundraisers by answering questions, following up on events and offering encouragement. I’ve never had a job description that accounted for the breadth of tasks I was expected to manage and carry out. I have worked fifty hour weeks with no overtime, no bonus and no possibility for a raise because my salary has been dependent on a set budget and most charities don’t have the option to offer these things to staff.

Charity staff are, for the most part, incredibly hard-working dedicated individuals. They are budgeting masters, following every single money-saving tip in the book. When their personal budget doesn’t work out, they carry on regardless of coming to the last week of the month and having to make a choice between buying toilet paper or buying food (this actually happened to me once). They persevere because it is in their nature.

Some charities pay their executive’s ridiculous salaries. Some charities invest their capital in questionable markets. Some charities focus on treating symptoms, rather than causes. But not all charities are created equal. For every charity that seems to have morphed into big business, that has an income of millions and questionable ethics, there are dozens of charities that just barely keep going, operating on the barest minimum.

As someone who has worked in this sector my entire professional life, I won’t deny that it would be nice to actually get paid a salary that reflects the skills I have and effort I’ve put into developing them. Who doesn’t want enough to comfortably cover rent, food, transportation and bills? But I’ve come to realise that I would much rather work for just barely enough in a charity than anywhere else. At the end of the day, I feel best knowing I’ve contributed to something much bigger than me. This is not a judgement on those who are motivated to make money. If I was motivated to work for a higher income alone, I would happily use every extra cent I earn to support these charities financially. I would love to be bringing in enough to fund entire projects, to establish investments to help benefit as many people as possible. I would love to know that the people working in this sector have a living wage because they deserve it.

Burnout in this sector is high. It’s hard. It’s hard going to work for a cause that matters to you and then barely make enough to cover your basic needs, let alone getting out of any debt you may have accrued. A lot of people who work at charities, rely on charities. It’s even harder to be met with vitriol from a society which, on the one hand, ranks the value of a person by how much they can earn, and on the other, thinks that to want to earn a paycheque while working at a charity is ‘selfish’. I have experienced this first hand over and over. I’ve been told I’m greedy for expecting a living wage from this sector. That I’m just trying to ‘maintain a lifestyle to which I’ve become accustomed’. Understand, my lifestyle is frugal. I wear socks until they have holes in them, shoes until the soles drop off. I consider it extravagant to spend out more than $20 on any single item of clothing. I’m actually accustomed to living on the bear minimum. A lot of charity staff are.

In a society that teaches us to look out only for ourselves, helping people has become an act of rebellion .

Imagine if we truly valued people for the content of their character and acted accordingly. Rather than rushing out to give our money to buy a lot of stuff we don’t even need — things we will become bored with or will be obsolete in six months time — we would give our extra cash to conservation funds, organisations that rehabilitate wildlife or that work towards reconciliation. We could use the thousands of dollars we spend at Christmas to support groups with an historical record of protecting human rights or who offer counselling and rehabilitation for survivors of violence and traumatic events.

Don’t think for one minute that you don’t matter and that there is nothing you can do. If we get hung up on what we can’t to do, we miss the little things we can do. These little things, accumulated, make a huge difference. What ground has been gained in any cause is ground gained for every cause, and though it may be incremental that does not make it less valuable.

It is unreasonable to think that there will be a singular quick fix for complex problems created over hundreds, sometimes thousands of years, with a multiplicity of causes and conditions. When we truly consider, for example, how long women faced oppression versus the rights and freedoms we see today, we have made incredible advances in just a hundred years compared to hundreds and hundreds of years of oppression.

Take heart in this. Take heart in the power of valuing compassion and love and caring for others over a bottom line and increased stock value. Every industry has it’s fault and to be human is to be fallible. Not everyone who works in charity does so for altruistic reasons, but not everyone who doesn’t is fuelled by greed and self-interest.

We can all do something. We can contribute our voice to causes that matter to us. We can share this with friends and family. We can opt not to buy the latest gaming system or tablet or designer jeans in exchange for giving that money to one of these causes. We can insist that the gift we want people to buy us is in the form of a donation to a cause. It doesn’t even have to be a cause or a charity we support. We can help our neighbours by shovelling their walk or clearing their leaves. We can support a friend by picking up a phone and taking time to listen to something they’re struggling with. We can even do something as small as picking up litter we know we didn’t drop.

Whatever you do, do it with the understanding that we all just want to get by, to be at ease, to feel safe and content and cared for.

Be radical. Be a rebel. Take care of each other.


There are a lot of causes out there and it’s easy to get overwhelmed and decide not to support anything. I’ve put together some causes I’ve researched and determined to be worth supporting (and that I have supported myself). They are a mix of Canadian and American charities.

There are links in the text above as well as a few more here:

Canada Helps Charity Giving

This is a donation platform used by Canadian charities to help reduce the cost of donation processing, so more money goes to the cause. It’s also a hub for finding charities across Canada!

I include it here because you can actually get a charity donation Gift Card to give to someone. I think this is brilliant because it’s gifting someone money they can use to support a charity of their choice. This way the person receiving the gift gets the warm glow of giving to something that matters to them, and that’s awesome.

Reconciliation Canada

While this is an organisation that needs financial support, you can also support them by giving about twenty minutes of your time to fill out their survey.

To understand the value of reconciliation I recommend listening to this interview with Trevor Noah, where he speaks about the truth and reconciliation trials of South Africa following the abolition of Apartheid.

The American Civil Liberties Union & The Canadian Civil Liberties Association

These are organisations that work to overturn unjust laws that create or perpetuate social inequalities. They also work to implement laws that encode and protect human rights.

StopGap

This is a genius organisation. It’s so simple but also so powerful. They build solid, durable wooden ramps to make cities more accessible. A little thing that makes a huge difference.

The Couchiching Conservatory

Based out of Ontario, this is an organisation that purchases land for conservation and protection. They’ve been going for over twenty years and have been incredibly successful. Just $25 helps cover their conservation efforts for one acre of land. They also accept land donations in the area, so if you HAVE a bunch of land you could donate it!

I wanna say, their distribution of funds is pretty impressive. 80% of their funds go to conservation and land acquisition. Only 10% goes to administration and staff. These are staff who are not getting paid well, but keep doing it anyway because it’s important.


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