Spare a few questions before sparing a few dollars

December 8, 2010
Dear Friend,

The Guelph Squirrel Literacy Foundation needs your help. Can you find it in your heart to give generously? It’s almost Christmas, after all.

We can’t tell you exactly what we do, because it’s all very complicated. But it’s very important. So send your money now!

If you were sucked in by that appeal, you should probably let someone else handle your money. But then again, you’re probably like most Canadians. That is, trusting of charitable appeals to a fault.

More than half of Canadians donate to charities spontaneously, experts say—usually through unsolicited phone calls, requests at their front door or in the street (or in columns). We’re suckers for a smooth line and that nagging desire to help others. We’re Canadians, after all.

Problem is, some people are out to exploit us. Especially at this time of year.

Being informed about all the charities out there that might ask for your money on any given day can be overwhelming, if not impossible. There are 299 charities registered in Guelph alone, according to the Canada Revenue Agency.

Across Canada, there are 85,465 registered charities. And while many of those do such obscure work that we’ll never encounter them, or are community groups or churches that don’t solicit donations outside of their members, there are still tens of thousands of possible groups that might ask for your money.

Plenty more don’t bother to register with the government. So next time someone thrusts forward a can and asks for a donation, tell them you need to ask a few questions first.

“People have to get comfortable with saying, ‘This sounds great, and I want to learn more,’ ” Greg Thompson, director of research at Charity Intelligence Canada, an organization that evaluates charities for donors, told the Globe and Mail this week.

The newspaper had an accompanying story about how November was a bad month for fake cancer scams. There were four different cases in the country that led to either charges or guilty pleas.

Some scammers scored big. Tina Michele Sammons, of Langford, B.C., claimed she had severe brain cancer and took $300,000 from donors before she was caught. Others, like 23-year-old Ashley Kirilow, went so far as to shave her head, pluck her eyebrows and starve herself to look the part. She raised as much as $20,000.

Most of us didn’t want to ask that awkward question: “So, uh, you’re not making this up, are you?” And who, really, is going to ask someone for their chemo records?

People naturally want to help other people, and Canadians are an especially generous lot. We give more time and money to charities than most other people in the world, with the exception of Australia and New Zealand, according to a recent study.

And we’re not afraid to look like hosers doing it for a good cause. We drape ourselves in pink, shave our heads bald and grow tens of thousands of really ugly mustaches when Movember rolls around. Canadians, it turns out, raised more for prostate cancer last month with all those soup strainers than any other country.

But that generosity leaves us open targets, too. Last month, dozens of people who lined the route of the Guelph Santa Claus Parade were swindled by scammers who claimed to be working for Kare for Kids, a Toronto-based registered charity. Despite having name tags and flyers, they weren’t representatives of that group—and they stole untold amounts of money from the crowd.

And it’s only gotten easier to raise funds for any imagined cause. Within 10 minutes on Facebook, anyone can start their own pity party and launch a movement gathering donations for whatever sob story they can dream up.

At any rate, if you’re still happy to hand over your money without asking questions, the Guelph Squirrel Literacy Foundation needs your help. Send your money today…

Greg Mercer is a Guelph-based writer. His column appears Wednesdays. He can be reached at, and past columns can be read at

Guelph Mercury, 12/08/10

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