Keeping the ‘charitable’ in charity

Volunteer work isn’t easy.

You spend countless hours – hours that you don’t really have, after a demanding full-time job and between familial and other responsibilities. Often it’s after hours, when your body and (more so) your brain is craving relaxation. Other times it means taking time off from work not to go on a vacation, but for charity-related events or meetings.

When it came to OBAT Canada, a charity I founded, lots of people recommended that we hire people to grow; having dedicated employees raising funds full-time would bear better results. It’s sound advice, rationally speaking – but I passed on it. Because what we are trying to do is different. We are not a ‘typical’ charity nor do we aspire to be. Our aim is to adhere to and appeal to a true altruistic spirit.

My thinking was not everything has to be about money; we are blessed with much so we need to use those skills and expertise to give back in a dedicated and professional way without expecting anything in return. I was sure that if I could do it, there were bound to be others who believed in the same.

The 100% model.

Years ago, right at the start, we employed a model in which 100% of donations would be put directly into our charitable programs. And after all these years, with modest growth, we are thankfully still able to maintain this model. 

We have a small group of dedicated donors who cover our administrative costs. Being a volunteer-based initiative helps to mitigate expenses of course, but administrative costs are unavoidable, some for operational reasons and others for legal requirements: bank and credit card charges, website hosting and maintenance, softwares, donation system, auditing, wire transfers, etc. 

And we make a conscious effort to be efficient e.g. finding cheapest options without giving up on quality; no pamphlets – glossy or otherwise – sent by postage mail (we use email and social media instead); we definitely won’t send gifts or pay for restaurant meals or any such gimmick to woo prospective donors. Plain and simply, we are looking to maximize funds we put into our programs.

Making charity accessible? Yes.

The idea is to make charity accessible to everyone. It’s not always easy for some families to donate from their hard-earned savings. We wanted to have someone who can only afford $5 to still be able to make an impact on someone else’s life, and for the money not to get lost in a large bureaucracy not knowing what those funds ended up doing.  So far, our stats indicate that we have been able to make a difference in someone’s life for every $3.50 donated – literally, change has brought about change.

Big money for big name speakers? Nope.

Of course, keeping costs low means we don’t spend on things that seem to have become fundraising mainstays in the charitable space. For example, big name speakers; there are many that ask for large sums to speak at events along with other demands: higher class airfare, type of accommodations, types of meals; chauffeur-driven limo, and so on. 

For us, the ends don’t absolutely justify the means. Even if we can spend a vast amount on a speaker which will yield a surplus in donations – a favourable transaction in terms of dollars and cents – it goes against our understanding of charity. It would seem awkward to pay tens of thousands of dollars of donations on excessive luxury when those who we are trying to help live in squalor. 

And yet we have been fortunate to have had eminent personalities speak at our events, on their own dime, because of their sincere belief in, and support for, what we do.

Buy endorsements? Nope.

We won’t pay people or hire lobbyists or influencers for endorsements. Frankly, we don’t want endorsements that aren’t sincere. But we whole-heartedly welcome endorsements from anyone who truly appreciates our work. 

Pay for fancy videos? Nope.

Similarly, we won’t open up the proverbial vault for choreographed videos (these days a simple smartphone can accomplish a lot!). But we do realize the importance of connecting people to people. In that regard, we have been fortunate that benefactors have always stepped forward, whether to put together videos of our work or by taking care of any printing needs.

Charity as a philosophical, even spiritual, mindset? Yes.

I wrote an article six years ago on shifting the mindset of donors and I still stand by it. To be clear, not all charities can work on our model, nor should they. The work can often be highly complex and requires competent people who are paid fair wages to devote themselves as their primary responsibility. But how donations are used must be within the realm of reason and ethics.

To us, charity is not a transactional business or a space that should be commodified; it’s a philosophical, even spiritual, mindset. By trying to do good and keeping as close as possible to altruistic values, we have been joined by some amazing, selfless, sincere supporters and team members along the way. They are undoubtedly the backbone of the work.

Keeping the focus on…

But our focus is neither on ourselves, the team, nor on you, the donors. It is on those very real individuals who are in difficult circumstances – unfathomable, to most of us – and all they need is someone to express concern for them, to afford them the dignity they so rightly deserve, and to extend a hand to help them lift themselves up. 

So back to not expecting things in return: as it turns out, there IS actually a return there, one that trumps any event, activity or gimmick ostensibly “for a good cause”.  It’s the realization that WE are the fortunate ones to be involved in this line of work. And that realization can’t be bought; it’s priceless.