Monday, March 5, 2018

#MeToo Movement Comes to the Aid Sector

So far, the #MeToo movement has encompassed so many worlds—sports, police, military, political, Hollywood, religious, theatre, opera, university, symphony, art, popular music, business, technology, media and publishing.

And now it has also come to my world, the international relief and development sector.

The story broke last month. It involved sexual misconduct by Oxfam UK staff in Haiti seven years ago.

In response, Oxfam UK issued profound apologies, and a senior executive resigned. The organization promised the government, its supporters and others that it will do better in the future.

That wasn’t enough for about 7,000 people in that country, however, who cancelled their regular donations.

Two of the organization’s ambassadors, Minnie Driver and South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, also quit.

Tutu’s resignation was seen as some as a bit rich, given his church’s record when it comes to sexual abuse.

And his timing was bad; about the same time the Oxfam scandal was breaking, it was revealed the Church of England is facing over 3,000 sexual abuse claims against clergy and others in its parishes. 

The Oxfam scandal also produced calls in Great Britain for the government to reduce the level of money it devotes to foreign aid. It currently gives 0.7% of gross national income, making it one of the most generous countries in the world. 

Prime Minister Teresa May refused. She told the British House of Commons that although the development sector needs to get its house in order, it’s “absolutely crucial that we continue our support through aid for those who are most vulnerable.”

She added, “they [people in the developing world] also deserve to be treated by the same high standards that we would expect to be treated ourselves.”

Which is exactly how those of us who work in the relief and development sector in Canada also feel.

For us, the scandal is absolutely heartbreaking.

Working with some of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable citizens, our sector is supposed to be better than that—much better. 

We owe it to the people we serve, and to our donors, to operate by the highest ethical and moral standards.

And we do. That doesn’t mean we can rest easy, though. The scandal prompted many aid organizations in Canada to reexamine their policies around misconduct and abuse.

Are they sufficient? Should they be strengthened? And how do we make sure they are communicated throughout our entire organizations, and to our partners on the ground?

There are at least two reasons why we want to make sure these policies are strong, and scrupulously adhered to.

First, to protect the people we serve from any and all harm. Second, to preserve the trust donors place in us to do the right thing with the money they give us, and for the people we serve on their behalf.

That trust is one of our most valuable possessions. It is also a frangible thing. We work hard to earn reputations for efficiency, effectiveness, transparency and ethical conduct.

But it can be lost quickly through poor or bad decisions on the part of staff or management.

And once lost, it is very hard to get back. 

That’s the case in Great Britain, where a recent poll found declining support for charitable giving in that country in the wake of the scandal.

More than a third of those polled said they were less likely to donate to aid groups because of what happened at Oxfam. 

I don’t expect the same thing to happen in Canada. 

So far, nobody has called my organization to cancel their giving. And the Canadian government has reiterated its support for Oxfam Canada and Quebec, and the wider aid sector. 

As bad as it hurts, the scandal will be a significant turning point for all aid groups, including Oxfam.

In an op-ed in the Toronto Star, Oxfam Canada Executive Director Julie Delahanty wrote that this “is not the time for Oxfam to run or hide from these awful stories or make excuses.”

Instead, she stated, “it is the time to wholeheartedly commit to putting in place the people, policies and systems to ensure such events never happen again.”

What happened in Haiti in 2011 was deplorable. What happens next will set the bar even higher for the entire aid sector.

From the March 3, 2018 Winnipeg Free Press.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Turning Newspapers Into Charities: A New Model for the Future?

It’s no secret that Canadian newspapers are struggling.

Some would say they are dying, the victims of a broken business model—done in by the Internet.

People in the newspaper industry are looking for a fix, something to help them survive.

One idea that is getting some traction is the idea of enabling Canadians to make charitable donations to newspapers—turn them into charities that can accept donations and issue tax receipts.

The Canadian government is prepared to give that some thought.

In the most recent budget, it promises to explore "new models that will enable private giving and philanthropic support for trusted, professional, non-profit journalism and local news."

This "could include new ways for Canadian newspapers to innovate and be recognized to receive charitable status for not-for-profit provision of journalism, reflecting the public interest that they serve.”

Here in Winnipeg, Free Press publisher Bob Cox says this is “good news and certainly welcome.”

He notes there is a growing non-profit news industry in the United States, thanks to tax-deductible donations from supporters.

These are media like NPR and PBS, which many Canadians are familiar with, but also outlets such as the Texas Tribune, MinnPost and ProPublica.

I have to admit I’m intrigued by the idea. Even though I'm no expert on newspaper economics, I think it’s worth a try.

But before newspapers rush headlong into the charity model, there are a few questions that come to mind.

Although I'm not an expert on newspaper economics, I know a thing or two about fundraising. 

And if there's one thing fundraisers know: Raising money isn't easy.

Definition of a Charity

But before talking about raising money, we need to first take a look at Canada's Income Tax Act and charities.

The Act uses a common law to define what a charity is, something inherited from Great Britain.

In Canada, an organization is a charity if it fits under one of four things: Relief of poverty; the advancement of education; the advancement of religion; or other purposes that benefit the community in a way the courts have said are charitable.

Currently, journalism is not covered by the definition.

Maybe no change is needed; if the government wanted, it could put newspapers under education, or the catch-all “other purposes” that benefit the community.

Whatever way it goes, someone would need to make that ruling.

Advocacy and Benefits

Then there's the issue of advocacy and benefits.

Currently, charities are prohibited from spending more than 10% of their funds on political advocacy.

For newspapers, would this mean needing to be careful how they report about political issues, parties or candidates? 

Would they have to restrict the number of opinions calling for changes in government policies? 

Could they no longer support particular candidates or parties in an election?

For an enterprise worth hundreds of millions of dollars, that might be moot. But the question would still need to be addressed. 

Then there is the matter of benefits.

One of the ideas being suggested to help newspapers is to let people get a charitable tax receipt for buying a subscription to a newspaper.

It would seem like a win-win—the newspaper gets the money, and the subscriber gets a tax break.

It's a great idea, except it's not permitted. 

Canada Revenue Agency rules are very clear that donors should get no benefit from a donation.

It's one of the cardinal rules of fundraising; breaking it can get you into big trouble.

This is why if you go to a fundraising banquet, you get a donation receipt for the amount you gave less the cost of the meal. (That is your benefit.)

If subscribers were to be able to claim their subscriptions as a donation, there would need to be a significant change to the way the CRA currently operates.

The Charitable Landscape

Those are logistical questions. They involve lawyers and accountants. With the right legislative changes, and enough money and expertise (lawyers and accountants are expensive!), the changes can be made.

It’s what happens next that ultimately determines whether the effort is successful: Fundraising.

And the fact of the matter is fundraising is hard—and it’s not getting easier.

First off, the number of Canadians claiming a charitable tax deduction is falling, from 25.1% in 2005 to 20.9% in 2016.

Added to that is the fact that the country’s best givers—older people—are literally dying. There is no guarantee their places will be taken by younger donors.

Speaking of which, younger people tend not to read newspapers, in print or online. They will be a very hard group to fundraise from.

Then there’s the competition; there are over 86,000 charities in Canada, all competing for a decreasing amount of donated money.

It's not like there's a huge well of untapped money out there just wanting for someone to ask for it.

If anything, when it comes to asking for money there are almost more hunters than rabbits.

People are already being asked, again and again. At some point, they might just be tapped out.

What about Foundations?

If appealing to thousands of small donors is difficult, what about foundations? That’s where the big money is, right?

Not as much as you think, at least not here in Canada.

We have fewer foundations than in the U.S. in general and, as far as I can tell, just one dedicated to media. (The Canada Media Fund, which supports TV and digital productions.)

The U.S. meanwhile, has over 1,000 foundations that contributed $1.86 billion to media between 2009-11.

These foundations made over 12,000 grants, but mostly to web and mobile media, vastly outpacing support for traditional media (TV, print, radio).

The foundations making these grants include well-known names like Gates, Knight, MacCarthur, Annenberg and Lilly.

But even if a foundation decides to make a grant to a media outlet, here’s the thing about foundations: They are usually not in it for the long term.

They don’t tend to make lengthy commitments. Three-to-five years is normal. Many prefer to give money to get things started, not hang around forever.

A typical goal is sustainability—being able to survive without the foundation.

Then there’s the application process itself, pages and pages of forms and documents and plans and projections.

This is why many charities today employ full-time grant writers.

But maybe that's OK; what I hear from newspapers is they just want short-term help to tide them over until they find a new model.

It all depends on whether those dollars are available. It would be interesting to find out.

Which Brings us Back to Fundraising.

Whether or not foundations come on board, newspapers will still need to raise funds from smaller donors.

The last thing any organization wants to be is too-reliant on a single source of income. Spreading donations out among thousands of smaller donors can provide longer-term stability.

But fundraising is a unique skill. People take courses, workshops and spend their entire careers trying to figure it out.

Not everyone can do it. It takes a unique personality to be a good fundraiser.

For one thing, you have to be able to ask people for money. Some people would rather gouge out their eyes with a sharp pencil than do that.

When it comes to the media, I can’t think of many journalists who consider it to be high on the list of things they really want to do in life.

If media outlets want to get into the fundraising game, they are going to have to hire fundraisers, marketers and communicators—people with those special skills.

Just putting an ad in the paper and hoping the money rolls in won’t cut it.

The media will need to do marketing, learn about creative offers, designated giving, matching appeals, and donor relations (the “donor journey”).

Figuring out what donors want to give to is art, science and a bit of alchemy these days.

Not only that, increasingly donors want to designate their donations to specific projects, types of work or countries.

This is something charities resist; the best donation is the one marked "use where needed most," since it provides the most flexibility. 

("Where needed most" can also be used for rent, heat, water, electricity bills and staff salaries, since people tend not to designate for those things.)

But donors like to choose countries, people (girls, women, children) and programs (water, food, education, health); it helps them feel more connected through their giving. 

What if they want to do that for newspapers, too? Arts and sports might be the big winners, while international of school boards loses out.

And here’s another thing about donors: They aren’t forever. They come and go. Donor retention is one of the bigger challenges facing any charity today.

Then there’s accountability and transparency—where was the money spent? How much is spent on overhead and salaries? Donors want to know.

Raising money is hard work, in other words. And there are no guarantees.


Boy, do I sound like a downer! I don’t mean to be. I think being able to donate to keep my local newspaper alive is good idea, and one worth exploring.

In fact, it’s already being done, albeit on a small scale, with church-related publications in Canada. Without donations, most wouldn’t be able to survive.

Will it also work for the mainstream media? I don’t know. I'm sure people who work for newspapers and other media outlets have already been thinking about the various issues and questions.

It won't be easy. But I’m game to find out.

I’d even send in a donation.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Using Special Days to Share a Message, or "If I Can't Dance, I'm Not Coming to Your Revolution"

In 1976, Americans Bob Love and Rose Lehman (above) went to Haiti as Mennonite Central Committee volunteers.

Bob worked in the pharmacy, while Rose was a nurse.

Bob and Rose had never met before going to that country. But as sometimes happens when young people meet on an MCC assignment, they fell in love and married four years later.

Through 38 years of marriage, they’ve never forgotten their relationship’s beginnings with MCC in Haiti, or what service in that country meant to them.

Why am I telling you this? Because MCC cleverly found a way to use their love story to promote the idea of service and helping others by telling their story on Valentine’s Day.

Seeing that story made me think: What other annual special days can NGOs and non-profits use to get their messages notice by the public and the media?

There are 36 special events for February alone, including things like Toothache Day (9), Umbrella Day (10), Make a Friend Day (11), Drink Wine Day (18), Love Your Pet Day (20) and Cupcake Day (27).

Not all days would be suitable, of course. But there would be ways to use some of them.

Take Groundhog Day, for example.

If a municipal, state, provincial or federal government fails year-after-year to make progress on a pressing issue (homelessness, the environment, foreign aid), you can invoke the famous movie of the same name: Here we go again.

What about Pi Day? (March 14). Maybe the math for a desired change just doesn’t add up.

For donations, can three people be helped, three trees planted, or three anythings be done by a donation of $14?

Those who are fans of The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy could use Towel Day, May 25, to talk about the importance of hygiene in the developing world.

Of course, we also need to be sensitive; not every issue can benefit from a lighthearted campaign.

But many of these special, offbeat, fun and quirky days could also allow groups to hitch their causes and issues to things already in the news, giving them an extra boost—and maybe some additional donations.

They would also be great for social media; something fun for people to share.

And if we can’t have a bit of fun now and then, what’s the point? We can’t be serious all the time.

Or, as the paraphrased quote from the radical feminist Emma Goldman puts it: “If I can’t dance, I’m not coming to your revolution.”

So when it comes to special days, dance and share away.

For a list of international days about causes, click here. 

Saturday, February 24, 2018

When it Comes to Foreign Aid, Are We Nuts?

Are NGOs nuts enough to collaborate more to engage Canadians?

On February 16 about 100 communicators from Canadian NGOs, Global Affairs and the Office of the Minister for International Development met in Ottawa for a one-day forum on communicating with and engaging Canadians about relief and development. I was asked to make some introductory remarks. I chose, as my inspiration, the words of Don Cherry, who I believe asked one of the most important questions facing NGOs in Canada today.

“Are we nuts?”

That’s the question Don Cherry asked on Twitter in 2013 about the over $49 million Canada gave to Haiti through foreign aid.

Cherry went on to say that he understands there are many needs in the world.

But, he asked, how can Canada afford to send money to other countries when people in this country are hungry, homeless and in need of medical care?

Tweeted Cherry: "We've got a guy dying in Toronto waiting three hours for an ambulance.

“We got people waiting 7, 8, 10 hours, if they're lucky, in a waiting room with one doctor for a zillion people.

“We nickel and dime our doctors, nurses and veterans plus a million other services.

“Yet we can send almost $50 million to Haiti."

Through his Tweets, which received extensive media attention, Cherry asked the question that is on the minds of millions of Canadians then, and now.

Are we nuts?

When I read his Tweets I thought to myself: That’s it. That is the question we, as NGO communicators, need to answer.

Are we nuts?

Of course, there are many other questions to answer and things to talk about—things like gender, equality, justice, peace, human rights and the best way to help people escape poverty, and many, many more.

Those things are all important, and deserve our best attention.

But those are not the things on the minds of most Canadians when they think about where the government should spend its money.

What’s on their minds are the many needs in Canada—and how we should be responding.

So when we say the government should provide more money for water projects in Ghana, Canadians ask: What about Indigenous communities in Canada with no running water?

When we say more funds should be provided for health care in Senegal, Canadians ask: What about growing wait times in hospitals in this country?

And when we say more foreign aid should be provided for people who are hungry in Africa, Canadians wonder: What about hungry children in Canada?

Or, as Don Cherry put it more succinctly: Are we nuts?

For me, there are two responses to that question.

First, Don, no—we aren’t nuts.

No, we aren’t nuts. Canada is a rich country. Of course there are needs here that should be met. But compared to the rest of the world, we are doing so much better than almost all other countries.

No, we aren’t nuts. Canada’s economic fortunes depend on a healthy global economy. When people in poor countries do well, Canada does better, too.

No, we aren’t nuts. If we want to live in peace and lessen the risk of terrorism, we need to address the issues that create conflict and terrorists—issues like inequality, injustice, and lack of employment and opportunity.

But yes, in other ways, we are definitely, completely nuts.

We are nuts enough to believe that Canada is rich enough and strong enough and generous to meet the needs of people who are hungry and poor in Canada—and in the developing world.

As we like to say at the Foodgrains Bank, using the image of the Great Banquet in the Gospels, there is room at the table for all.

Yes, we are nuts enough to think that we, as citizens of a wealthy country, have a human and moral responsibility to assist others—to extend a hand of help and kindness and solidarity to those in need—because we can.

It’s the most Canadian thing of all to do.

And yes, we are nuts enough to believe that we are all in this together—rich and poor, north and south, men and women, young and old.

The health of the planet we all call home depends on it.

And that brings me to our event today.

Today we are gathering for the first time as communicators from NGOs, Global Affairs and the Minister’s Office.

Today we have an opportunity to think outside our institutional and governmental boxes to find new and creative ways to engage Canadians.

Today we have a chance to set aside our various organizational plans, schedules and agendas—as important as they are—to focus on the larger collective goal of engaging more Canadians in our shared mission of creating a fairer, better, equal and more just world.

In saying this, I’m not saying it will be easy.

In fact, I’m sure it will be hard.

And yet, what is the alternative? To keep doing the things we’ve always done in the hope of a different outcome?

We know what that’s a definition for.

So today I would like to put Don Cherry’s question to you:

Are we nuts enough to believe we can collectively muster our supporters, and many other Canadians, to say to the government: Yes, we care—we care about needs at home, and also abroad?

Are we nuts enough to think that, together, we can come up with new and creative ideas, campaigns and ways of telling our story that will move the needle of public opinion just a little bit?

I hope so. I truly hope we are all that nuts.

Today we get a chance to see if I am right.

Let me conclude with the words of Daniel Burnham, the influential 19th century American architect.

At a time when American cities were in midst of disorder and discord, it was Burnham who came up with a powerful new vision of what a city could be, and what it could look like.

"Make no little plans,” he said.

Little plans have no magic to stir the blood and probably themselves will not be realized.

“Make big plans; aim high in hope and in work." 

So at the end of the day I hope we can say yes, we dreamed big, we made big plans, we aimed high.

And that we can also say to Don Cherry: Yes, we are nuts. And we want to invite many more Canadians to be nuts along with us, too.