'Tis the season of charitable giving — but not for 'under the radar' causes

Many charities can't seem to cash in on the holiday boost in giving, because they don't have the marketing resources to increase visibility at this time of year, or because their cause is too complex for an easy pitch.

Some charities with hard-to-explain causes are left out of the annual holiday donation surge

Charities supporting everything from children living in poverty to homeless people to hospitals count on a surge in donations during the holiday season. According to Imagine Canada, Canadians donate about $5 billion to charities during the last six weeks of the year. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

It's easy to be overwhelmed by the sheer number of worthy causes asking for help this time of year.

Donation boxes collecting toys for poor children fill up, volunteers make last-minute appeals to shoppers to help the homeless, and mailboxes get jammed with fundraising letters from hospitals, food banks and animal shelters.

According to Imagine Canada, an umbrella organization representing the charitable sector, Canadians give about $5 billion to charities in late November and all through December. That's almost 40 per cent of the approximately $12 billion in donations received over the entire year.   

The holiday season is "obviously critical for charities," said Bruce MacDonald, Imagine Canada's chief executive.

Some charities in Canada struggle to 'punch through' the onslaught of holiday fundraising appeals to get the message out about why their particular cause is worthy, says Bruce MacDonald, chief executive of Imagine Canada. (David A. Gilmour/Imagine Canada)

But many charities can't seem to cash in on that holiday boost in giving, he said, because they don't have the marketing resources to increase their visibility at this time of year, or because their cause is more complex to explain than a short sound byte, tweet or billboard image might allow.

That's a difference Valerie McMurtry has noticed between her last role as CEO of a children's rehabilitation hospital foundation in Toronto and her current job as president of the Children's Aid Foundation, which funds more than 60 child welfare agencies across the country. 

When you're showing donors why their help is needed with an "iconic picture of a child who's ill or a child who's disabled, you don't need to say much more," McMurtry said.  But children who have had to be taken into foster care because of abuse or neglect are "under the radar" in the public's consciousness.

"It's not like we are able to put a spotlight on them," McMurtry said, because the identities of kids in the care of Children's Aid and other child welfare organizations are protected. 

'You just hate the thought of a child being struck down by an illness through no fault of their own,' says Valerie McMurtry, president of the Children's Aid Foundation. 'It's not different for a child who's been, you know, neglected or abused.' (Children's Aid Foundation)

"These are kids who, through no fault of their own, are really dealt a bad hand in life," she said. "But they're very hard to see."

During the holidays, she's especially worried about young adults 18 and older who have aged out of the child welfare system and are "on their own."

One young man, who was in his early 20s and had aged out of care, died by suicide on Christmas Day three years ago, McMurtry said. The tragedy helped inspire the foundation to start a holiday support fund for other young adults who had previously been cared for by the system.

"A lot of people misunderstand them and think that they're bad news or they're trouble or whatever," she said. "They're just trying to make their lives work. And they have nobody really backing them."  

'Highly stigmatized'

For charities supporting people suffering from less understood diseases, particularly in mental health, stigma is an enormous barrier to fundraising, said Mary Alberti, chief executive officer of the Schizophrenia Society of Ontario.  

"Some of our donors want to remain anonymous … because of the stigma that is still associated with the illness," Alberti said. 

The stigma around schizophrenia is so acute that some donors don't even want their names mentioned, says Mary Alberti, chief executive officer of the Schizophrenia Society of Ontario. (Mary Alberti/LinkedIn)

Despite high-profile public campaigns to raise awareness around mental illness overall, schizophrenia remains "not well understood and sometimes also associated with [people] being fearful of it," she said.

Some people mistakenly believe that donating money to help people living with schizophrenia is hopeless, Alberti said.

"People like to understand their giving really goes to something ... really tangible," she said. "Sometimes the perception would be … 'do people really get better? What is this actually going to mean to, you know, to improve the quality of life for somebody?'

"[But] people with schizophrenia go to university. They can live really good lives," Alberti said.  

Not 'cute kids and kittens'

Other charities struggle because the general public doesn't recognize why they might deserve support. 

"We're not a cute kids and kittens kind of charity," said Catherine Latimer, executive director of the John Howard Society of Canada, which advocates for fair and humane treatment of people in custody and effective rehabilitation so they can reintegrate into society upon their release.

"It's difficult to attract new donors, because the cause doesn't resonate with people in quite the same way as some of the other charitable causes, and it's not a sort of a top-of-the-mind issue," she said.

Charities like the John Howard Society, which works to ensure inmates of jails and prisons are treated humanely and can safely transition back into the community after their release, don't see much of a rise in donations during the holiday season. (Nicole Ireland/CBC)

For many people, how the organization benefits the community "isn't clear right off the top," Latimer said. Because people served by the John Howard Society have committed crimes, some question why they should help those who are "not innocent." 

"If we don't support them and if we don't have the kind of charitable interface with people who wouldn't be getting help otherwise, it's not only inhumane and unjust for them, it creates real problems, because they won't reintegrate well [into the community]," she said.    

The John Howard Society doesn't currently conduct a holiday fundraising campaign and relies largely on a small group of year-round donors whose "eyes have been opened to some of the social injustices that are apparent in the prison justice system and in the criminal justice system," she said. 

But Latimer said she would "love it" if there was an "infusion of resources at Christmastime."

"There's so much more we could do," she said. 

About the Author

Nicole Ireland

Nicole Ireland is a CBC News journalist with a special interest in health and social justice stories. Based in Toronto, she has lived and worked in Thunder Bay, Ont.; Iqaluit, Nunavut; and Beirut, Lebanon.