Hunt for the cause


There's more to the drop in donations to Canada's charities than donor fatigue and the economic down-turn
By Ron Shore
Special to True North Perspective

Ron Shore, president of Telesave Communications in Vancouver, lost 17 friends and relatives to cancer in a four-year period, including his sister-in-law who died from breast cancer soon after giving birth. As the founder of the Hunt For The Cause Foundation, he recently launched The World’s Greatest Treasure Hunt: Quest for the Golden Eagle to raise money for cancer research. He can be reached at 1-866-766-7467 or

Over the past year about one third of Canadian charities noticed a drop in contributions from individuals. Imagine Canada reported in August more charities are stressed, a growing number indicating their existence is at risk.

Undoubtedly, some of this donor fatigue stems from the long grinding out of the economic downturn. But that’s the easy explanation. Part of this malaise also stems from the failure of charities to introduce novel or attractive options for potential donors.

As a society Canadians are primed to respond quickly and with compassion when confronted with the needs of others. For the Winnipeg flood, the Haiti earthquake and the South Pacific tsunami, the giving was immediate and at remarkable levels.

Yet for many charities, there is predictability about annual appeals. With more than 83,000 charities in the country, you would wonder that there aren’t more options than to check off a box promising to donate $10 a month. Many charities seem to prefer a one-way relationship with donors.

By way of contrast let me offer a recent experience as a participant in the CIBC Run for a Cure in Vancouver. I found myself surrounded, literally, by highly committed individuals who were passionate about what they were doing.

Many were running for friends and family members with breast cancer. Others were running in memory of a special person struck down by this terrible disease. Whatever the reason, each was contributing time, donations and emotional engagement to take part in an event with great significance. They knew the cause, they drank the Kool-Aid.

In Ontario, Oxfam Canada attracted more than 100 four-person teams to a gruelling trail hike of 100 kilometres over less than 48 hours. The price of admission was $2,500 minimum in donations per team and participants were pushed to personal limits. For all that sweat, the takeaway for participants was fighting poverty worldwide.

Across Canada, hundreds of young high school and university-aged students pay hundreds or thousands of dollars to charitable agencies in order to visit a country in Central America or Africa and work for a week or month building schools and medical centres. Each pays large amounts of money, often committing to public speaking after returning, for the privilege of making a difference.

And as founder of the Hunt For The Cause Foundation, which supports breast cancer research, my current fundraising project features a virtual treasure hunt for more than $1 million that I hope will raise millions of dollars and attract the involvement of many non-traditional donors. The frustration and fun of the hunt marries participants to the cause of fighting a terrible disease.

For many Canadian donors there needs to be more to giving than handing over a cheque. They want to be engaged emotionally or physically in the improvement each charity promises to deliver.

So if donors are weary, it isn’t entirely because of the economy.

In 2007, Canadians made more than $10 billion in donations to charities of all kinds. While the average amount of each donation increased significantly over a similar survey conducted in 2004, the percentage of Canadians willing to open their wallet did not increase – and this was all before the economy tanked.

The individuals who make the greatest impact on charities are really a thin red line of contributors. Statistics Canada reports that in 2007 the top 25 per cent of donors (those who contributed $364 or more annually) accounted for 82 per cent of the total value of donations.

Small wonder then that so many charities focus on that dependable fishing hole.

But if charitable giving is to expand and diversify in the future we must introduce new options that push the envelope.

We must fire the imaginations of our youth and attract the large numbers of Canadians who are not part of the traditional sweet spot pursued by many charities.

We must reach out to those Canadians who have tired of our approaches. Surely we can offer more than a brochure and an outstretched hand?

Without question we, as the fortunate citizens of this amazing country, have a duty to volunteer our financial support to worthwhile causes according to our ability. Yet the organizations that receive our support also have a duty to foster a meaningful engagement with all citizens – and not just a slim minority.