Surrey advocate for donor’s rights aims for charitable transparency

SURREY — Often, when people give to charity, they want to sleep well knowing that the better part of the money is actually going toward said cause. And while about 23 per cent of British Columbians support public charities, many are hazy on the specifics of where their donated cash actually goes.

John Block, a Surrey-based realtor and founder of the Donor’s Rights Society, aims to change all of that.

By proposing changes to the BC Society Act – under which more than 12,000 registered charities and 13,000 non-profit organizations operate – the Donor’s Rights Society aims to create more transparency between donors and their charities.

"My parents came to this province as children of the depression in the ’30s and I was raised in a family where you were taught that when a community supports your business or your profession, you give back," Block told the Now.

"My parents were very involved with charities. In the ’50s my dad was involved in Union Gospel Mission and my mother, Children’s Hospital. Over the years, my family has tried to follow their example, and for the most part we’ve had wonderful and rewarding experiences."

About two years ago, however, Block decided he wanted to understand the business aspect of public charities. Much to his surprise, he learned that many of B.C.’s – not to mention Canada’s – public charities are "running like a closed shop."

That is to say, many charities limit voting membership to the board of directors only.

That’s also when Block discovered that the BC Society Act, which outlines the regulations for said charities, hasn’t been updated since 1977.

"There’s a lot of registered charities and there’s a lot of competition, much more so than 40 years ago," Block said. "So, the biggest surprise to me was the fact that a charitable organization could be created and the board of directors could determine on their own whether to restrict access to membership."

Transparency between charities or nonprofit organizations and their volunteers and donors may have quelled the damage done by last year’s Portland Hotel Society scandal, in which a damning audit revealed that a senior manager may have dipped generously into the pot for a trip to Disneyland.

The Royal Columbian Hospital (RCH) Foundation’s financial blunder in 2011, when the charity lost $3 million because of low ticket sales for three already bought properties could also have been avoided with an open membership, Block suggests.

"The last home lottery the RCH foundation had they lost over $3 million," Block stated. "The point is that if there was an engaged voting membership, the board would have had to go to them get their approval to make such a large financial commitment. Would (the members) have approved that? There was such bad publicity about it that they got out of the home lottery business."

Block’s aim isn’t to publicly scrutinize charities or deter people from volunteering their time or donating money to worthy causes, but to encourage engagement between the charities and their donors.

By lobbying local MLAs and promoting a change to the BC Society Act, it’s Block’s and the Donor’s Rights Society’s hope that more people, in fact, will be apt to get involved if they have the right to look into how their resources are used.

The proposed amendments to the act include: the right of donors to becoming voting members of any charity incorporated under the B.C. Society Act; the right to participate in a board nomination process; the right to make proposals at a meeting of the voting membership; the right to access the charity’s most recent financial statements and; the right to requisition a meeting of the voting membership.

"People need to know, are (charities) taking risks with donors’ money that is not appropriate?" Block asked.

Since January, Block has met with 31 local MLAs on the matter. Recently, the Ministry of Finance released a "white paper" containing proposed draft legislation for a new Societies Act based on a discussion paper presented in December 2011. The deadline to make submissions to the changes is Oct. 15 this year.

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