One great thing about the new Ben Weider exercise centre in the Currie Gym room is that it's left the old smelly one with no lineups. I was happily rowing there one lunch hour when a rather dishevelled student hopped on the machine next to me. He matched my cadence, then, looking a little the worse for the wear, turned to ask how long I planned to continue. The student told me he'd been up all night studying for an engineering exam. And what did I do? he inquired. "I work in development and alumni relations," I replied. "Oh," he said matter-of-factly, "so you're a bureaucrat."
That simple word was enough to fully arrest my workout. A bureaucrat. There are many things that one aspires to be in life, but, safe to say, a bureaucrat does not figure very high on the list. It's right up there with another perennial favourite: administrator. Mind you, on the plus side, this student-initiated conversation came as a surprise. At 35 years, nary a flicker of recognition ever comes my way. But maybe it's the bureaucratish aura rather than being right off the age stratosphere.
A word then, about bureaucrats. Indeed, there are a whole slew of us bureaucrats working in the charitable wing of McGill University known as Development and Alumni Relations. In this issue, you'll read that McGill raised $44 million dollars during the last fiscal year it was a team effort between alumni, McGill professors and staff, and scores of volunteers and yes, the bureaucrats. Perhaps, then, I'm touchier than most when I see charities criticized for having "administration costs." There's no way around it. It costs money to raise money and fundraising is an extremely labour-intensive activity.
Every donor must be made aware of the cause, solicited, and properly thanked and recognized. For small donations this might mean a letter or phone call, for big ones, a reception and a formal event. We need to constantly communicate, hence, a vigorous publication program and continu-ally updated web site. Perhaps you want to check about a tax receipt, find an old friend, or discuss a bequest. Someone has to talk to you in a timely and knowledgeable fashion. We have to return long distance calls, pay postage, heat the buildings. The necessities may be mundane, but necessarily so. Indeed, there are 80 of us bureaucrats in development and alumni relations.
Without a doubt it is reasonable to expect a charity, like McGill, to keep administration costs as low as possible. The total budget of Development and Alumni Relations this year is $3.8 million, which doesn't include building costs, rent, lights, and heat. Even if those costs were another million dollars, the ratio of costs to charitable dollar raised would be within a respectable 10 percent range. McGill pays for raising money through a combination of general operating funds, and through levies on annual fund donations, endowment fund income and on each unit purchased. These fees help cover the costs of raising money and administering the programs and purchases that result.
Canadian laws give some assurance to donors. In order for McGill to qualify for charitable status with Revenue Canada, the University must spend no more than 20 percent per dollar raised on admin-istration costs and fulfill one of four mandates. McGill's is "advancement of education." (Canadians can verify that a charity is registered by calling 1-800-267-2384. Each year, each charity must submit a "public information return" and this is available, too.) Revenue Canada operates on the assumption that charities are reporting honestly and auditing is done randomly and when "there's a hint that something is not acceptable," according to one official.
This means that Canadian charities are held more accountable than in some countries, and less accountable than in others such as the United States or Britain, for instance. (See André Picard's Toronto Star article, "Checking Up on Charity," Nov. 21, '97). However, with the explosion in charities in Canada, some 75,000 to date and hundreds added each year, we can expect more attention to be paid to this sector. You're right to ask a lot of questions. Just remember that, when you see the tally for administration costs, the bureaucrats aren't all bad.