When I was much younger and used to canvass for union-buster extraordinaire Greenpeace, we all quickly learned that the holiday season was the time to rock those door-to-door donations. The United Way has long known this and ’tis the season for those United Way workplace fundraising drives. Chances are your workplace has one getting started right about now.

United Way in Canada began almost a century ago as a “federated funding” movement. Federated funding is an agreement between different community agencies and groups. These groups reasoned that it would be better to, as Sesame Street admonishes us, “co-op-er-ate” rather than compete for pieces of that charitable donations pie. So they created one collaborative fundraising body that consults everybody working on the frontlines to identify pressing community needs. Then they distribute the funds they raise accordingly.

Makes sense, right? This arrangement has worked for many years, making United Way the one-stop “brand” for charitable giving. It raises mindboggling sums of money. In the city of Ottawa alone, United Way raised $34.6 million in 2010.

But is Big Charity getting too big for the communities it’s supposed to be serving?

In Ottawa, a coalition has been forming around this question. Ottawa Community Action is concerned about the direction that United Way Ottawa (UWO) seems to be taking under current CEO Michael Allen. The coalition is worried that the equal partnerships of yesteryear are being replaced in favour of a top-down corporate structure with a small executive making decisions that are increasingly unresponsive to the small groups and organizations that have agreed to rely on United Way Ottawa for their funding.

Increasingly, UWO holds back more of the millions it raises for administration and internal programs — $8.44 million or 28 per cent last year. It also keeps 20 per cent of the “designated funding” or money that donors have requested to go to a particular group. So if I wanted to give at my workplace and wanted that money to go to, say, Planned Parenthood, 20 per cent would be carved off for UWO itself. And oh, by the way, UWO stopped funding Planned Parenthood earlier this year. It also refused to fund the STORM Program that does outreach work with sex trade workers, and the City for All Women Initiative, a group that works with immigrant women to do community engagement and advocacy.

Beloved and important community agents in Ottawa — Minwaashin Lodge, the Elizabeth Fry immigrant women program, Mothercraft, the Ottawa Rape Crisis Centre, OCISO multicultural family program, YMCA YWCA’s Child Care Support for Vulnerable Children… the list of defunded organizations goes on and is starting to look disturbingly like the types of groups that have been targeted by the federal Harper government: namely, groups and services that work on equity issues and support women’s and girls’ empowerment.

Similarly to the rules of the new Women’s Program at Status of Women Canada after Harper’s government gutted it, proposals, rather than organizations, now get the funding from UWO. This funding is doled out according to certain “measurable outcomes” determined by the top United Way executives rather than trusting the expertise and input of those actually working in the field. If your need doesn’t have a business “indicator” or “measurable outcome” attached to it, you’re S.O.L. So, for example, UWO cut funding to day programs for adult children with developmental disabilities because these did not fit its new “employment” priority. The irony is that now the parents of these adult children cannot go to work! And which gender does the bulk of our caregiving? That’s right, women lose again.

Having to continually fill out requests for proposals to stay afloat puts huge pressures on already-stretched community groups, draining their capacity as they struggle to do their frontline work while competing with each other for that United Way funding. Wait: wasn’t this the very scenario that the United Way was originally set up to avoid?

Without secure funding, jobs in these groups — many held by women — will have to be contract jobs, affecting the stability, quality and level of services that agencies can offer. The competitive proposal model also opens up the field for big multinationals to move in and bid on United Way funding to run programs and services. Big Charity begets more big charity, leaving the grassroots organizations out in the cold.

The coalition is also concerned that UWO is defunding the very community agencies it was set up to support, competing with them to deliver the services directly. UWO, for example, has used donations money to start up a new Hire Immigrant Ottawa program. How can one little agency that advocates for immigrants, no matter how deeply it is rooted among immigrants in the community, “compete” with a program set up by United Way Ottawa? The former may have a better knowledge of what actually works for immigrants but hey! UWO is having a gala with celebrity servers (only for large donors, mind. The little people get hot dogs on the lawn).

UWO has even quarrelled with the city of Ottawa over taxpayer money earmarked by the province for municipal housing needs, arguing that it should be administering that money, even though none of the top officials of United Way Ottawa are elected or accountable to the public.

In other words, Big Charity is starting to act like the 1 per cent.

Ottawa Community Action isn’t asking people to withhold their donations to the United Way because so many are dependent on its powerful fundraising capacity. But it is asking that individuals and groups sign on to endorse its concerns and that they consider either designated giving or directly donating to the charities and groups of their choice.

Because so much of the fallout from cuts and threats to our social programs lands on the shoulders of community agencies, it’s really important to be aware of where your giving is going and not going these days. This holiday season, I, for one, will be donating directly, not at the office. And I think I’ll start with that list of organizations that has had their funding cut by United Way Ottawa.

For more information about Ottawa Community Action, go to www.putcommunityfirst.ca.

Aalya Ahmad

Aalya Ahmad

Aalya Ahmad has a PhD in comparative literature, a crush on George Orwell and a rather impressive collection of cloth bags from the various public service unions she has worked with over the years....