Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Lawmakers question why charities can’t be all volunteers and work out of someone’s kitchen like Aunt Thelma’s church women’s group

Canada’s largest charities went before the country’s top lawmakers yesterday to ask for more help from government. But Members of Parliament instead asked them why they can’t be more like their Aunt Thelma, who runs a successful church women’s charity out of her kitchen with no paid staff, office space or anything.

“We need more help from government with some of our infrastructure challenges – more IT, better HR, improved education and help attracting and retaining volunteers,” Jason Snidely, the Chair of the National League of Big Charities told the House Commons Committee for Finance, Banking, Securities, Mortgages, Nuclear Safety, Equal Opportunity and Charities in Ottawa. “These are issues that all 165,000 non-profits in Canada face and government can play a pivotal role in coordinating the effort to solve them.”

However, the members of the Conservative-dominated committee were uninterested in the League’s presentation or their six month research project with 10 other charity umbrella groups to analyze the sector’s long-term needs. They wanted to know why charities have any paid staff at all.

“I understand that some leaders of Canada’s top charities are actually paid a salary and that it involves money. This is the kind of abuse of Canadian donors and taxpayers that we were all afraid of,” said MP Dibble Brewer once the presentation was over.

“Until today, I thought all charities were run by volunteers. I’m shocked to find out that some of charity people are actually demanding to be have an income. And not just any income, but one that actually employs them, in some extreme cases, full-time,” added MP Turner Creamer. “No wonder the charity sector is in so much trouble. It’s unacceptable.”

In her questioning, MP Georgina Smollet presented a report based on tax data that found that the charity sector employs “like more than a hundred people or something” across Canada and that some of their salaries were even more than minimum wage. “I had no idea that this abuse of the public trust was going on. We need to get to the bottom of it.”

Committee Chair MP Vegen Sprout demand to know from the assembled charities why they couldn’t be more like Aunt Thelma, who’s North Simcoe United Church Women’s Club run a successful charity out of her kitchen.

“Aunt Thelma isn’t paid one red cent and yet all of you CEOs and President’s sitting here make as much as say a server at a fast food restaurant. How come you need a salary and she doesn’t? You both run a charity. You both do whatever a charity leader does. There’s no difference, except that perhaps you are more greedy than Aunt Thelma, and she bakes wonderful cookies,” Sprout said.

Aunt Thelma’s charity raised $1,400 last year. She is reported to be one of the nicest older ladies the MPs have ever known and has done many innovative fundraising things such as hold 50-50 draws and raffled off baked goods, such as her famous date squares.

League Chair Snidely told the Committee that charities are in fact a multi-billion dollar sector in Canada and are run as businesses, complete with paid staff, a payroll, and even benefits. However, MPs question whether than was true.

“I have at least three charities in my riding in Southern Ontario,” said MP Brewer. “And as far as I know none of them have any paid staff or offices. One’s a shelter for women or something. One helps with sick people. And one raises money for research for some kind of really bad disease that I can’t remember. I don’t know what they do for employment, but I’m sure they aren’t paid by these charities. Perhaps they sell insurance or something.”

MP Smollet wanted to know if donors were aware that these charities were actually paying their staff. “I’m sure most donors have no idea that you big charities actually use their money to pay for things like offices with chairs and desks and stuff like a real business. If they were, they wouldn’t give you anything. They’d give it all to Aunt Thelma,” she said. “She just uses her kitchen table.”

“I thought you guys were the non-profit sector. And here you are coming to us asking for help and telling us that you actually are acting like businesses,” said MP Ferly Swanson. “Don’t you guys get it? It’s NON-Profit. It’s right in the name for Heaven’s sake. Geez.”

Liberal and NDP members of the committee were more understanding in their questions, asking the top charities why they couldn’t just pass a collection plate during community events or have a charity dunk tank instead of paying salaries to their leaders.

“I’m sure if you ask your leaders to just volunteer their time that would save you a lot of money so you could spend it on whatever charities in fact spend things on…like bingo supplies or whatever,” said MP Yodle Nurwiner.

Calling the League of Big Charity’s case confusing and contradictory, Committee Chair Sprout called on them to return in a year with more details.

“You say you pay your CEOs, but at the same time we know that Aunt Thelma isn’t paid. You say you have offices, but we know Aunt Thelma doesn’t have one. She makes sandwiches with the crusts cut off and you don’t. How can we trust anything you say when it is so incorrect? We know more about the charity sector than you do!” she said.

The League told reporters after the meeting that it plans to hire Aunt Thelma as a lobbyist.