Donor dilemma means Northumberland must be generous

First published: March 09, 2005

When the terrible tsunami hammered South Asia on Boxing Day, Northumberland County residents responded with generous donations giving more than $100,000 to organizations like the Red Cross, service clubs, schools and churches. Nobody doubts the sincerity and the spirit motivating people to reach into their wallets to provide assistance during this crisis.

But there is a ripple effect now being felt within other charities, causing some serious repercussions as groups scramble to remain viable. There are two examples of these groups with immediate needs and both are in jeopardy: the Northumberland Humane Society and Horizons of Friendship.

The Northumberland Humane Society is on the verge of closing down; if it is unable to raise the $12,000 to $15,000 per month it needs to operate. It is easy to assume there is a duplication of service because there is another animal shelter, The Shelter of Hope in Hamilton Township. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Both provide temporary homes for abandoned animals and offer adoption. But there are several major differences. The Shelter of Hope is the base for the local municipal animal control officer. This is the person who comes around to pick up stray animals and enforces poop and scoop laws, among others.

The Northumberland Humane Society enforces provincial animal cruelty laws and there is a huge distinction. These are the criminal laws that protect animals. The humane society responded to 121 complaints in 2004. Only two years ago, it investigated 192. The society’s volunteer investigator looks into complaints ranging from inhumane treatment of dogs to starving horses.

As Society Manager Joan Currie puts it: “Animal control protects us from animals. We protect the animals from us.”

Without the Humane Society, this essential service would be lost, a point often overlooked.

But the society is not alone in its financial predicament. Horizons of Friendship, a non-government organization serving Central America for more than 25 years, is facing its own fiscal crisis. Efforts to raise $230,000 for critical projects yielded only $50,000 as major donors handed out less money. Now, it is looking at staff reductions and fewer projects for the upcoming year. It is also unable to respond to emergencies, such as a current outbreak of disease in children in Guatemala. In one small town, 20 children died from the terrible diarrhea, hunger and malnutrition they face daily. What is even more heartbreaking is the Canadian government and many European aid agencies are focusing on other areas like Africa and South Asia rather than Central America, said Horizons’ executive director Patricia Rebolledo.

Both these cases demonstrate the perplexing problem of reduced government support and shrinking donations. But there is also an incredible shortsightedness by politicians and us.

Politicians’ efforts to continuously slash budgets and reduce spending leave organizations like these underfunded and forced to raise more and more money to operate. The Humane Society and Horizons provide essential services in their respective areas. Governments need to provide sufficient money to operate these services, as they did in the past. To rely on private donations is to expose them to intense competition for dwindling dollars of private donors. One only needs to look at the number of second-hand stores run by charities in Northumberland to see an example.

Certainly, the tsunami relief efforts bled away many dollars as people responded to the crisis. The Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty of Animals lost $300,000 in donations, Currie said. Rebolledo also blames part of their problem on it, too.

Unfortunately, it is this emergency response mentality that is what is at the heart of the problem. It is gratifying to give money when a catastrophe takes place, but it is long-term funding that helps these organizations do sustained good work year after year.

Another problem is donors are dying off. The vast majority of donors are seniors, people who have known the personal hardship of the Great Depression or a world war. They know how important it is to give, even when there isn’t much. Those who are between 35-years old and 55-years old tend not to donate on an annual basis. With the demands of busy lives and tight budgets at home, families find it difficult to volunteer to help raise money or donate. It is a tough call, but we cannot ignore the need.

What compounds all of this is donor fatigue. The tsunami emergency aid, the Human Society and Horizons are all equally good causes. But we are bombarded almost daily with requests to give money for parks, schools, service clubs, and organizations across the county. While frustrating, we cannot lose our empathy. The Humane Society and Horizons need our help to continue to provide crucial services at home and abroad. No doubt other organizations will find themselves in a similar fix in the near future. Residents of Northumberland cannot become weary. The well of generosity and compassion cannot dry up. We must open our hearts and wallets to continue to support these worthwhile local organizations.

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