The Insider

This article (as well as coverage earlier in July on CBC) troubled me greatly, and not for the reasons that either journalist intended, I’m sure. I am troubled by the narrow perspective on the facts in both instances, as well as the potential damage these articles could do to the important work of these fundraising organizations.

As full disclosure as well as to point out my credentials in providing informed commentary on this:
  • I am currently employed at the BC Cancer Agency in research, and so my employment benefits from (both directly and indirectly) research funding provided by BC Cancer Foundation and the Canadian Cancer Society.
  • I am a committed and long-term donor to the BCCF.
  • I am a previous participant in the Weekend to End Breast Cancer (now the Weekend to End Women’s Cancers) and a donor and supporter to current participant in both WEWC and the Ride to Conquer Cancer.

As anyone knows who has been approached by a charity to donate to their cause, charities often have to pass a very high bar when it comes to convincing people to part with their hard earned after tax dollars. So, the charities need to do more than just ask in order to get people to donate. They need to have logos, giveaways, mail outs, and events in order capture both donors interest and donor dollars.

There are lots of charities to choose from, many with overlapping interests. While one could say that the charities should get together rather than compete, the fact is that they do all do slightly different things, and so those divisions of activities and causes can be necessary for the charities to deliver to their cause. But it doesn’t change the fact that, for the donor, the charity landscape can seem very cluttered. So, the charities need to do more to distinguish themselves, again requiring mascots, advertising and events to bring attention and dollars to their cause.

For charities that fund cancer research activities, the number of projects and the scale of those projects has been steadily increasing as government funding for that work has steadily declined. This comes at the same time as overall economic decline, requiring the expanded fundraising efforts described above.

While the proportion of dollars spent on actual fundraising is the focus of these recent news items, they miss entirely the reality of the situation: dollars are harder to get from donors; there are more charities competing for those same dollars; there are more people, including researchers, relying on donor dollars for support. It costs money to raise money.

All of this fundraising work requires quality effort – creative, experienced, dedicated people doing many things on many fronts to raise the money to support their cause. The Vancouver Sun article highlighted salaries for charity employees as somehow indicative of profligate waste, and implied that people work for charities because it is a lucrative career path. While I can’t speak for all charities, I can state that, in my own experience, nothing could be further from the truth. More importantly, folks working for charities are not there for the money – they are there because they have skills to offer to a cause that they believe in. The fact that they get paid for doing a job that they believe in is not unreasonable, just as I’m sure that journalists who believe strongly in freedom of the press still expect to get paid for their work. (Okay, that last part is a bit petty, but you get my point.) And to compare charity employees with MLAs is apples-and-oranges – while politicians are certainly working for a cause they believe in, the similarity ends there.

The CBC article had a twist that was difficult for me to understand – a researcher airing his concerns about the charity in the media rather than with the charity or within the research community. Nothing says “industry in disarray” like a whistleblower, especially one with a self-interest. Whether knowingly or not, this kind of action has the exact opposite effect of what I’m sure was intended: donors who are interested in supporting research will not insist that the CCS do a better job, they will simply take their dollars elsewhere. This will make it even more difficult for CCS to support research projects. The focus of their fundraising messages will need to shift from promoting the excellence of the research and care they support to defending their use of dollars for fundraising and administration (which will naturally increase the proportion of dollars to F&A, the very thing the researchers do not want).

A key point missing in the CBC story was this: in the last year, CCS did not run competitions for research funding, as it was reorganizing the ways in which those dollars are awarded. As a result, the funds spent on research last year were less than in previous years (and I’m guessing that those unspent dollars show up in the F&A category, making that proportion seem a bit bigger than normal). While I’m not discounting the trend, I’m suggesting that a key fact was missed in the reviews of the financial statements.

As for the Vancouver Sun story, two facts I’d like to point out. One, the BC Cancer Foundation did not receive a “D” rating in that 2009 review; it received a “C”. Two, the primary reason for the C-rating was because the BCCF did not post its annual report on its website. The BCCF now does this and more to ensure that donors and everyone can access that information freely. A quick call to BCCF could have made those facts available, and avoided the printing of misinformation.

So I am troubled by what I see as the misinformation in these stories. And I’m troubled by the potential negative impact that such stories can have, making the already difficult job of charity fundraising even harder.

I give (and will continue to) to BCCF, not because I work at BCCA, but because I believe in the work that they do and that they fund. Working at BCCA gives me a unique perspective on the impact of BCCF funding of research, and an opportunity to work directly with BCCF employees. The work that they do is important. The work that their work funds is important. And it is important that people know that.

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