IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

I avoid flag days like the plague - but please don't call me a miser

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Aug 18, 2013

Barely a week goes by when a charity is not having a flag day - and while my friends are often more than happy to donate their spare change, I keep my wallet firmly in my pocket.

Yes, I know it doesn't take much to plonk some coins into the tin can when approached by a volunteer. And you do get a nice little sticker to put on your T-shirt and show what a kind heart you have.

But I'll always be the one standing aside when my friends donate and hoping nobody notices me. If I'm walking alone, I give flag sellers a wide berth and pray they don't approach me.

Friends do not remark on my seemingly skinflint ways - or perhaps they pretend not to notice out of embarrassment - but it's probably only a matter of time before someone asks me about it.

Now, before you call me a miser, I'd like to point out that I do believe in helping the less fortunate.

After all, I'm continuing my donations to charity even as I limit my spending to under $35 a day in order to boost my savings and net worth.

But part of being young and savvy involves ensuring that every cent of our donations achieves the maximum amount of good, and goes to the exact cause we want.

And that involves deciding which cause we really believe in, rather than just giving money to any random charity that approaches us on the street.

I also believe in asking tough questions of the organisation before opening my wallet.

Perhaps it's a job hazard. Being a financial journalist, I have reported on numerous investment and commercial scams so I'm unwilling to let my guard down even when it comes to charities that claim to do good.

Part of the cynicism also comes from what I've observed in the charities sector.

Just this month, I encountered a youngster selling spa and beauty vouchers, claiming that the money would go to a children's home.

But after questioning him, I realised that he would get a cut of the money if he met the sales target while another portion of the donations would go towards the cost of the voucher.

Only 40 or 60 per cent - I couldn't be sure due to the unclear explanation - would go to the charity, a fact that was not mentioned unless you asked the part-timer directly.

Of course, donation vouchers or selling trinkets for charity are slightly different animals from flag days. Indeed, I believe most flag day sellers are unpaid volunteers.

Still, I'm very reluctant to put money into flag day donation cans - not least because I'm often unclear about the organisations themselves and where exactly the money is going to.

That is why I did a large amount of homework before I started my monthly donations to a local hospice some time back.

I chose this particular charity after much deliberation, as I believe that one of our highest callings should be to provide care and comfort to the sick and dying, many of whom spent their younger years building up this country.

I first downloaded the organisation's annual report and financial statements, which are freely available on its website, and pored over every line.

I studied how much money it was raising and spending every year, such as its fund-raising expenses. That has to be as low as possible - it surely doesn't make sense for a large proportion of donations to go into paying for the fund-raising activities themselves.

I also focused on its staff costs. The hospice provided its headcount and its employee costs, and when I checked a couple of years back I calculated at that time that each staff member took home around $45,000 a year.

That was higher than the national median income. But I found the wage bill to be reasonable, considering that the hospice was employing highly skilled professionals like doctors and nurses trained in palliative care.

The relatively modest wage costs showed prudent financial management by the hospice, I decided.

I still had other questions not addressed in the documents, so I called the organisation and spoke to a kindly lady whose job involved handling pesky queries like mine.

"Your charity has millions in dollars of cash reserves, and seems to be running a surplus each year. Why are you still trying to raise more money?" I asked.

Her response was that the vast reserves were needed to continue operations in case donations slowed down or dried up.

Operating costs were very high every year due to heavy subsidising of patients' bills, and in any case the hospice had a policy of not accumulating more than five years' operating expenditure as reserves.

The response seemed fair enough and I carried on.

The second query involved the patron and board of directors. I asked how much they were paid, as I couldn't find any mention of it anywhere.

"Oh, the patron and directors are all volunteers, we don't pay them anything," was her response.

"Really, nothing?" I probed, slightly sceptical as I'm used to seeing generous remuneration packages for directors in the corporate sector.

"Yes, nothing," she confirmed.

That last response nailed it for me, together with the charity's relatively reasonable employee wages.

Within two weeks, I'd set up my monthly donations to the hospice. I've been donating for more than a year now, and having done my homework beforehand, I'm assured that my small contributions are being put to the fullest use.

So please don't blame me for brusquely ignoring the next person who approaches me with a donation can or charity vouchers.

I just prefer to do my homework before giving any money to charity, even if it's a small amount.

jonkwok@sph.com.sg

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Aug 18, 2013To subscribe to The Straits Times, please go to http://www.sphsubscription.com.sg/eshop/