Bingo hall woes should not affect charities

A move by Cobourg council to adjust the cost-sharing agreements between 52 local charities and Bingo Country, West Northumberland’s last commercial bingo hall, raises some vital questions about local fundraising.

Charities, like Northumberland Services for Women, Big Sisters/Big Brothers and numerous sports organizations, among others, will be receiving less money to keep the bingo hall on Division Street open. Now, charities will pick up a portion of the operating expenses, as well, the town will charge a flat $100 licence fee rather than getting a percentage of the prize board, costing the town about $40,000 in lost revenue. Considering there are no other commercial bingo halls in the county, the Cobourg location is a crucial outlet for many non-profit organizations seeking to fundraise. Port Hope closed its location four years ago.

This is no surprise to those inside the provincial gaming industry. The Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario released a report in December 2005 outlining its intention to bring about a series of changes to bingo halls, from allowing them to serve alcohol to Internet gambling. Some of these proposals are already being implemented. An E-bingo operation, which is broadcast over a closed network of halls, has opened in Barrie. Altering local municipal bylaws was another area under consideration.

There is a 100-year history of gambling used by charities in Canada. A study by the Canadian Centre for Philanthropy in 1995 found 44 per cent of non-religious charities use gambling as a fundraising method. A similar study done in 1999 by the Canada West Foundation found 69 per cent consider gambling revenues very important to their organizations fiscal plans.

Former Premier Mike Harris slashed funding to many non-profit organizations during the 1990s, along with a series of cuts made at the same time by then-federal finance minister Paul Martin. Gambling was the solution, or salve on the wounds of angry social service and community organizations. It appears one aspect of this plan is now failing in Northumberland.

There can be no doubt local smoking bylaws hurt the bingo halls three years ago when the town introduced its own bylaw. A stricter province-wide bylaw comes into effect on June 1. Smoking bylaws hurt many bingo halls across the province and the country. A study of charitable gambling in 2000 said there were 240 bingo halls in Ontario raising $250 million a year for charities. It identified smoking bylaws as the greatest threat to the industry, with an estimated 70 per cent of bingo players being smokers.

While this is a factor, it is a slippery slope. The harmful nature of second-hand smoke cannot be denied and municipalities and the province responded responsibly. Still, the effect on the charities is now being played out before us.

Bingo hall also face stiff competition. The Ontario government has become involved in gambling to raise revenue for its Trillium Foundation, which handed out more than $31 million in the past year. It is difficult to compete with the province, which also regulates all aspects of gambling. Kawartha Downs, with its slot machines, may be pulling gamblers away from local bingo halls, as well as daily buses taking people to Casino Rama in Orillia.

Charitable gambling has its advantages for non-profit organizations because it can be an efficient, easy revenue source. Applying for government grants or to philanthropic foundations is a complex, uncertain method of raising money that is not always guaranteed

Most importantly, sithout the bingo hall, the 55 organizations affected would be forced to find other means to raise money, putting them into more direct competition with other fundraising activities, like the United Way and others. Talk to any local business to find out the number of times per week an organization is seeking some type of donation, either monetary or in-kind.

Beyond the ethical and social implications of using gambling to fund non-profit organizations, there are some serious problems. Asking charities to support a commercial enterprise like the bingo hall is very risky and could end up being more damaging than helpful in the end. Organizations are reserving judgment on the impact, but it will be a topic of discussion around many boardroom tables over the upcoming months.

Maybe it is time the provincial and federal government took more responsibility for providing direct funding to organizations rather leaving them pray to uncertain grant programs, private sector foundations or gambling. For too long, these levels of government have failed to fully pay for services, particularly social services. Municipal leaders demanded federal MP Rick Norlock and provincial MPP Lou Rinaldi provide sustainable funding for local council to operate. Maybe the same message needs to be made by charitable groups throughout the county. Otherwise valuable community services will be lost.

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