COLUMN: Ask questions before doling out dollars

Two potential story leads ... were good examples of how local non-profit agencies and campaigns often find themselves in competition

Two potential story leads we recently followed didn’t pan out as the major news stories they were purported to be, but they were good examples of how local non-profit agencies and campaigns often find themselves in competition with obscure groups and initiatives.

An organization called the Fraser Valley Grocery Resource Society recently distributed empty grocery bags to about 800 Abbotsford homes, along with a note requesting food donations, and the statement “we support local food banks.”

That was news to Dave Murray, the co-ordinator of Abbotsford Community Services (ACS) Food Bank. He hadn’t heard of the “Grocery Society” until a local resident gave him one of the bags and asked if it was associated with the local food bank. It wasn’t.

Reporter Vikki Hopes looked into this outfit, which claims on its website to be focused on helping seniors, students and other low-income people.

Turns out they are “stockpiling” the food in donated warehouse space in Surrey. There is no distribution centre, but the president of the society says he hopes to have one set up in Aldergrove.

In the meantime, Kelly Fowler confirmed his group intends to sell some of the donated food at reduced prices, and the groceries will be delivered to low-income seniors.

Fowler said he wants to focus on seniors because “they get ignored … nobody is taking care of seniors.”

The note that accompanies the empty bag for generous people to fill doesn’t reveal that the food may be resold. Fowler says that information is on his website.

Murray questions the ethics of selling donated food. So do I.

Would you still give to an organization that turns around and sells the groceries to the people it’s supposed to be helping, even at cut rates? I’m guessing many of you would not.

As for seniors being “ignored,” that’s not true, according to Murray. The elderly can receive help through the ACS Food Bank or through the Meals on Wheels program, which delivers food to seniors and others who have difficulty leaving their homes. I’m sure local churches also provide aid to the elderly, or would be quick to help if asked.

The second story we followed involved the sale of chocolates by kids.

They go door-to-door, selling the candy for a Kelowna-based business. They don’t claim to be a charity, but they do say they are working for a “youth program.”

Some of the funds supposedly go to student prizes for good grades, and perfect attendance, and the company website says a laptop computer is awarded monthly to the student who writes the best essay.

Despite those ostensibly laudable efforts, the Students 1st group is a business. It has a business licence in Abbotsford, and other communities.

They sell chocolates. The kids take a share of the revenue, the drivers who transport them take a cut, and the business owner presumably makes money from selling the chocolates to the drivers/distributors.

There’s nothing illegal about it.

But if you hear some sort of reference to a “youth program” from a nice kid at the door, are you more likely to buy a $4 box of chocolate-covered almonds? Probably.

Now what if it was an adult, who said he or she was there to sell chocolates on behalf of a non-local business? Probably not.

And what if you bought those chocolates yesterday, and today another nice teen knocked on the door, selling something to raise funds for a local school event or charity? Do you give your support again? And the next time?

It’s called donor burn-out, and it’s problematic enough for bona fide non-profit agencies and campaigns, without adding out-of-town groups and business schemes drawing money from a very finite source.

The moral of both of these stories is to ask questions before you take the cash out of your wallet.

There are countless very good, very legitimate, very local causes out there.

There are also some initiatives and enterprises that deserve your scrutiny before you dole out your dollars.