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Charitable accountability a societal expectation not to be ignored

Tuesday, November 10, 2015
Guest Writers
The Standards
Transparency & Accountability
Rob Donelson

One of the major trends in fundraising within the past decade, which is showing no signs of abating, is the trend to greater charitable accountability. This should be no surprise to those with even a cursory review of the media. In Canada, accountability has become a societal expectation. It touches governments, churches, and businesses. Those in the charitable sector must take notice.

Consider the recent Senate scandal in our country and the apparent flagrant abuse of rules for personal gain. Canadians demand answers and won’t tolerate the lack of accountability within this historic institution. The recent federal election, it can be argued, was influenced partly by the testimony made at hearings around this scandal. Further, it was not all that long ago that a certain Sponsorship scandal brought down another federal government. The people are watching.

Think of churches being called to account on the issue of child sexual abuse. The recent Truth and Reconciliation Commission report shed much-needed light on Canada’s tragic legacy of residential schools which stripped Aboriginal children of their parents, families, language and heritage, leaving a legacy of physical, emotional and sexual abuse the impact of which will continue to be felt for generations. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission is an articulate voice for accountability to correct these historic wrongs.

The corporate world is equally in need of greater accountability. The recent SNC Lavalin bribery/fraud scandal, and the growing demands of activist shareholders for greater transparency all contribute to a climate in which business leaders must account for their actions, or suffer the consequences, including impact on the bottom line. This is not new. Think Bre-X, Enron, Conrad Black and others.

When one considers this societal demand for openness and accountability in every aspect of life, why would society view the charitable sector any differently? Why would we not expect charities to demonstrate accountability to the public in the same way we expect this of government, churches, and businesses?

Charitable accountability is often in the news, usually around the holiday season when costs of charities are frequently in the spotlight. Earlier this year controversy over pledge payments at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto raised questions about recognition practices and expectations of the timeliness of pledge payments by donors. While every donor has unique circumstances surrounding their gifts, and even payment terms can be tailored accordingly, this news item underscored the need for greater accountability of charities to the public at large.

Trust + Credibility = Confidence

The charitable sector is based on trust. Lose trust and you lose credibility, confidence and possibly your existence. We owe it to donors and to taxpayers to act with integrity and transparency.

It is our responsibility to assure donors, as well as the broader public, that we deserve their trust and confidence. It must be earned again and again. After all, one need only look as far as the CRA website to gain an insight into a charity’s size, revenue and cost structure through the T3010 charitable tax return.

In my view, Imagine Canada has been one of the leaders in strengthening charitable accountability. Through its Ethical Code Program, Imagine Canada sought to reinforce best practices around ethical fundraising and financial accountability. It works well alongside the Association of Fundraising Professionals’ Code of Ethical Standards.

In 2012, the Ethical Code Program was merged with a more comprehensive Standards Program which accredits charities based on adherence to best practices in five key areas of board governance, financial accountability and transparency, fundraising, staff management, and volunteer involvement. It is a program meant to strengthen public confidence in the sector through a volunteer peer-review based accreditation process.

It has been said that, “the team that doesn’t keep score is only practicing.” If charities in Canada really want to be in the game of charitable accountability, and why would they not given the societal context in which they operate, they must commit to high standards of accountability through regular assessment and reporting. Adhering to higher standards, will do much to bolster public confidence in the charitable sector and ultimately serve the common good and the needs of those many constituencies our charities serve so well.


About the Author

Rob Donelson is Vice-President, Development & Alumni Relations at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario. He has worked in post-secondary and health care advancement throughout his career and serves on the board of the Canadian Council for the Advancement of Education. Laurier was the first university in Canada to earn the Standards Accreditation.


Guest contributions represent the personal opinions and insights of the authors and may not reflect the views or opinions of Imagine Canada.

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Submitted by Cathy Brothers on
Rob is a fantastic role model and mentor to so many of us in the charitable sector. He is a noble, precious leader who brings so much respect to advancement, development, and fundraising.

Submitted by Keith D Publicover on
Rob raises a number of valid points supporting the adoption of higher standards of accountability. Well done in bringing this forward. Building on these points and inherent in the application of higher standards is the recruitment of governance volunteers and ensuring they hold themselves and each other to a higher standard with their fiduciary responsibilities. No longer can the Sector rationalize mediocre performance at a Board level with sentiments of 'I am just a volunteer' or 'we are [just] a charity' that serve to deminish the standards of excellence. Boards need to lead by example.

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