Growth and dissension plague voluntary organizations
The troubling fates of philanthropic causes
Growth and dissension plague voluntary organizations
Amid the toy piglets, place mats and petite-sized cardigans of Toronto’s Canadian Save the Children boutique, two women are marvelling aloud over the workmanship of sweaters hand knit by Cansave volunteers. Cansave raises roughly twothirds of its $4.5-million budget through volunteer projects such as this shop—the other third matched by government grants—for aid and development projects in 35 countries and sponsorship of 8,679 individual children. Lately, these good works have been undermined by public charges of high overhead and involvement in Nicaragua’s pink-tinged politics. Here in the shop such charges seem muffled in pink wool. The two shoppers can’t recall exactly why singer Anne Murray resigned last month as patron of the philanthropy, or why nine Cansave directors and up to 60 volunteers in Toronto, Cambridge, Ont., and Edmonton felt compelled to turn their backs on the hungry-eyed Cansave brochure children, and quit. The shoppers vaguely sense that all is not right but dismiss the specifics as a tempest in a handmade tea cosy.
Yet Cansave’s problems are worth understanding, for they parallel the tensions of so many of Canada’s 37,000 nonprofit organizations, charities and
voluntary groups; it’s as if they were all knit from the same pattern. Like Cansave, groups from Oxfam (the international aid agency) to the Periodical Writers’ Association of Canada have been threatened with secession from alienated western chapters. Like Cansave, Canadian University Services Overseas (CUSO), Oxfam and the Anglican Church endure external and internal dissension over social development projects in political hot spots. Groups as diverse as the Stratford Festival Board, the Canadian Cancer Society Service to Patients division and the YMCA have been also rent by perceptions of volunteers’ roles versus the functions of professional specialized employees. Says
Ian Morrison, committee chairman for the National Voluntary Organization (NVO), an umbrella group of more than 120 organizations: “Cansave is by no means unique.”
Nevertheless, attention given to internal tensions “will hurt us,” admits Cansave Executive Director Gordon Ramsay. Bad press can quickly redirect the $500 million Canadians annually donate to charities, and discourage the 2.7 million people who volunteer their time. So far, fewer than 10 per cent of Cansave’s 1,000-plus volunteers have quit. But the defectors include people like Toronto businessman Peter Gorman, who has terminated his 30 Cansave child sponsorships, and energetic Cambridge, Ont., housewife, Brenda Peters, a 16-year veteran.
Cansave could lose 20 per cent of its total revenue estimates Oxfam’s fundraising director, Ken Wyman. That’s what happened back in 1973 when a debate similar to Cansave’s Nicaragua conflict over whether to support Third World liberation movements split Oxfam and took it into headlines. But
Wyman explains, “The saying ‘Give a man a loaf of bread, feed him for a day; teach him to farm and feed him for life’ makes no sense to us if he has no land.”
In Cansave’s case, several unrelated blows—politics and logistics—hit at the same time. When the U.S. suspended aid to Nicaragua this past February, Cansave’s more conservative volunteers’ qualms about their involvement in the Central American country boiled over. Barbara McCann, Atlantic regional co-ordinator of CUSO, sighs in sympathy: “I’m often asked if CUSO is ‘financing revolution’ because we’re involved in building schools in Zimbabwe.”
Meanwhile, Executive Director
Ramsay and staff were coping with rapid organizational growth by trying to absorb volunteer jobs—about as manageable as stuffing a church basement bake sale cake into a manila file folder. It made sense for the Toronto headquarters to assume more of Cansave’s Christmas card campaign, for example. But the cards, now packaged in opaque wrappers for direct-mail sales, became
difficult for volunteers to peddle, as they traditionally had, from booths set up in shopping malls.
Similar transition tensions between volunteers and staff are troubling the YMCA, Canada’s largest volunteer force (35,000). In the Y’s case, increased professionalization of the administrative and instruction functions left some volunteers feeling “that they weren’t needed any more,” claims national (volunteer) Vice-President Carol Dilks. It took two major task forces in the past five years for the Y to define roles for volunteers—policy making, advisory (e.g., advice from volunteer doctors) and program development—giving the organization what the NVO’s Ian Morrison now terms “one of the most creative volunteer systems in Canada.”
Cansave’s problems, like the Y’s, were not only logistic but also a matter of poor communication and hurt volunteer pride. After a public school teacher developed a “Valentine Tree” program, in which school children sent letters and financial support to their Third World counterparts, the project “mushroomed across the country,” says co-founder Karen Nevitt of Melville, Ont. “The volunteers just loved working with those little kids. But this February the staff practically took the program away from us.” (Cansave’s staff director of international programs, Bill Stock, protests, “They wanted to use a U.S. Save the Children kit outlining programs Cansave had no involvement in.”)
But the volunteers who launched Valentine Tree were members of a bloc of affluent, high-profile, relentless organizers more committed to successful fund raising than to such niceties of content. For several years they functioned almost independently, inaugurating social column-worthy events such as a Courrèges fashion show and the annual
College Bowl football event. Differences in style and values between this bloc and the rest of Cansave turned stormy when Gorman announced that he had cajoled a corporate donor into giving $35,000 to the cause; the donor was Nestlé (Canada) Ltd., condemned by international church groups for peddling baby formula to Third World mothers. Defector Brenda Peters sniffs, “Some organizations would have been proud of high-energy volunteers like us.”
The volunteers’ fears that the money they struggled to raise was being misspent on high staff overhead may be unfounded. In fact, Cansave’s overhead and actual number of staff have declined in the past two years and the “15 unnecessary trips to the Caribbean”
they cited to the press turned out to be six trips to seven countries where Cansave has projects. Yet, the bloc felt compelled to oust Executive Director Ramsay. Voted down by the rest of the board, they resigned. When Anne Murray followed, her press release brought the bloc’s differences to newspaper headlines.
A member of a different, but equally controversy-ridden volunteer group, Don MacLeod, vice-president of the Stratford Festival Board, suggests these divisions may be common to most fund raisers and fund disbursers, “each of whom has a different constituency.” For example, Stratford’s board wanted to satisfy patrons that overheads were low and the season would be commercial, while the fund disbursers, like Cansave’s, worried about Canadian content—the nationality of the festival’s artistic director.
For Calgary lawyer Duncan McKillop and other breakaway Cansave members in Edmonton and Calgary, the split was just part of Toronto’s inability to communicate with the West. Toronto headquarters had decided against supporting a project in Nepal run by Albertans, which alienated Western-based granting bodies. “We Albertans were raising up to 25 per cent of the money, and Toronto was making all the decisions about spending it.” Sighs Richard Harmston, executive director of the Canadian Council for International Co-operation, an umbrella group that includes Cansave, CUSO and Oxfam: “Our whole psyche in Canada is caught up with this question of regionalization; naturally volunteer groups play the national game.”
With all the tensions of growth, change and disparate points of view, Canadian voluntary agencies have to cope with the additional difficulties of being Canadian. But cope they must, urges Grant Dobson, public affairs director of the United Way. “Inflation is driving up our overhead. While we’re an increasingly professional organization, we need volunteers more than ever to keep costs down.” At present, estimates the NVO, Canadian volunteers contribute $3.5 billion worth of their labor to their chosen causes. So, in an effort to woo back its lost volunteers, Cansave has now appointed a director of volunteer services who is now meeting with Western dissidents.
Among the cardigans and piglets of the Cansave boutique, a frail, silverhaired shop lady gently but firmly declines to comment on the whole business. “A family affair; it never should have been made public.” She insists she only wants to get on with the jobsaving the children. And whatever heads have rolled at Cansave, she, for one, intends to go on knitting. <£>
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