Your charity dollar is a hot commodity and the fundraising sector keeps getting more complex and competitive. That means an organization like Ottawa's 81-year-old United Way has to work harder to get you to consider giving to local social causes it holds dear. 

This past year, the United Way positioned its annual campaign differently by setting a fundraising target that, for the first time, didn’t take into account the millions it collects — and sends back out — on behalf of individual charities. 

Instead, the organization tried to focus donors' attention on what it has determined are Ottawa's needs, such as helping at-risk children, people with mental illness and former addicts, plus boosting employment for new immigrants and people with disabilities.

And yet, when the 2013-14 campaign total was announced earlier this month, the United Way had a little less money to earmark for those causes than the year before.

On the other hand, the amount donors designated to causes of their choice rose slightly. It's a trend that’s grown for the past few years.

Where is the money going?

But if the United Way's own programs receive fewer dollars, which organizations attract donations from people in Ottawa?

The United Way collected $12.6 million in the 2013-14 campaign on behalf of more than 300 groups, but it has no control over that money. The groups include United Ways in other Canadian cities, international causes, religious groups and many others. This list isn't a scientific way of determining where people decide to donate, but the list offers some insight.

Rob McCulloch, director of development at the Ottawa Humane Society

Rob McCulloch, director of development at the Ottawa Humane Society, says people should be able to choose where their money goes. (CBC)

A group of organizations, termed Health Partners, was far and away the leader in donor-designated donations in recent years, drawing nearly $5 million. That's understandable. It's a group of 16 prominent health organizations, including the Heart and Stroke Foundation and the Canadian Cancer Society, which actively spreads its message during the government workplace campaign. 

But after that you'll find the Ottawa Humane Society, which sometimes raises more than $400,000 from people who choose the organization's name through the United Way.

"It's one of my personal pet peeves. Pardon the pun," said Goldy Hyder, the high-profile Canadian public affairs executive, referring to the humane society bringing in thousands more than the children's hospital foundation or groups that aim to alleviate poverty.

Hyder spent this past year as co-chair of the United Way campaign in Ottawa. He visited a centre for single mothers and counselling groups for people with mental illness. As the father of a child with an intellectual disability, Hyder said he was especially inspired meeting people with developmental disabilities who had found jobs thanks to a local organization.

"They need their advocates too," Hyder acknowledged of the Humane Society, "but my view is I'll pick a child before I pick a dog. Maybe that's harsh, but if I have a choice to make, I'll pick the child and help the dog after."

Poll question

Donations are personal choice

It's an honest, personal opinion and philanthropy is very much about personal experience and what has touched a donor in his or her own life.

The Humane Society believes it’s so successful because many people in Ottawa are pet owners. It also credits its ability to tell heart-warming stories and describe how a donor's gift is used.

Goldy Hyder

Goldy Hyder, co-chair of United Way's 2013 campaign, says one of his pet peeves is people donating to help animals before children. (CBC)

"We talk about individual animals and special animals and how we've saved their lives, and I think that has a big impact in people supporting us," explained Rob McCulloch, director of development at the Ottawa Humane Society. "People give to people and people give to stories, not necessarily organizations or causes."

McCulloch, who has run fundraising for other organizations, says it's not about charities competing. He believes donors will give where they want to give.

"I think they're going to find a place in their hearts for helping animals, for helping humans, for all the great charities the United Way funds and also other ones in the community as well," he said.

Small groups struggle for visibility

Small groups in Ottawa say they face a greater challenge than the Humane Society to pull at a person's heartstrings in order to raise money.

"We work with a population who are sometimes not highly visible, whose vulnerability isn't always necessarily understood, and who are sometimes the most devalued population in our community," said Brian Tardif, head of Citizen Advocacy.

That group supports people with physical, developmental disabilities and mental illness by matching them with volunteers to do activities that make them feel more included in the community. 

While Tardif respects the work of the Humane Society, he says he’s troubled by that trend: more donations to charities of donors' choice, while United Way's own umbrella causes receiving stagnant or decreasing donations.

"What it means for groups like ours is that pot of funds that is available to support ... people with disabilities, children and youth or vulnerable people ... that pot of funding has decreased," said Tardif, adding it puts more strain on small organizations to raise money on their own.

In the 1990s, the United Way in Ottawa began allowing donors to target charities of their choice and the organization still sees it as an important way to encourage philanthropy in the community.

But for Tardif, the local trends in giving open a larger conversation about the United Way.

"What is the fundamental purpose of any United Way? Is it to receive and disburse funds?" Tardif asks. "Or is it to actually strengthen the community in which those funds are being received?"


2012-13 Donor-directed donations to charities through the United Way in Ottawa