Charities sure like their bees

Fundraising focus | Environmentalist denies using bees just to raise money

It’s becoming difficult to track all the groups trying to “Save The Bees.”


Greenpeace, the Sierra Club of Canada, the David Suzuki Foundation, the Wilderness Committee, the Centre for Food Safety, the Pesticide Action Network, Client Earth and Buglife represent a fraction of the environmental organizations campaigning on behalf of bees.


Most of the groups want a ban on neonicotinoids, a class of pesticides applied as seed coatings on the majority of canola, corn and soybeans planted in North America. Research suggests neonics are contributing to a decline in pollinator health around the globe.


The groups regularly send out news releases and tweets asking the public to support their efforts to ban neonics and save pollinators.


Nonetheless, conservation groups are not cashing in on the bee crisis, said John Bennett, executive director of the Sierra Club of Canada.


“I’m not aware of any groups that exploit issues for fundraising purposes only, and I’ve been doing this for 30 years,” he said. 


“I think any group asking for funds is actually doing work on the issue.”


Stephanie Kalivas, an analyst with CharityWatch, a philanthropy watchdog organization in Chicago, said it isn’t that simple.


When charities and NGOs receive donations, the money typically goes into a general fund. She said charities rarely designate the funds for a specific campaign.


“A donor can request that it be restricted…. ‘I want this $100 to be used specifically for the purpose of saving the bees,’ ” she said. 


“But in all reality, that’s not going to happen very frequently. The charities don’t like that. They want to use the money in whatever way they want to use it.”


Greg Thomson, director of research for Charity Intelligence Canada, said non-governmental agencies exploit prominent issues to raise money.


“Our environmental analyst took a look at environment charities a couple of years ago….. The marketing of polar bears, by charities, is way over (the top) … for the issue involved. There are (many) other species that are more in danger of being extinct,” he said.


“We know there is some of that cherry picking going on. Baby seals would be similar (to polar bears), where it’s something in the public consciousness so it’s easier to raise funds by marketing that.”


The Sierra Club of Canada initiated a campaign to save bees in 2013, around the time the European Union suspended the use of neoni-cotinoids as a seed treatment for two years. 


Neonicotinoid contaminated dust from corn planters has been blamed for killing millions of bees in Ontario during the springs of 2012 and 2013, which generated hundreds of stories in Canada’s media.


Bennett said the Sierra Club of Canada launched its lobbying efforts because bees needed national exposure.


“We base our campaigns on environmental imperative. We saw there was a need to bring this issue to a higher level about a year ago. I’m pretty sure we’ve succeeded in doing that.”


Bennett has done dozens of media interviews on neonics over the last year and presented to the Senate agricultural and forestry committee studying pollinators. 


The Sierra Club encouraged more than 10,000 Canadians to send comments to the Health Canada Pest Management Regulatory Agency, which oversees the use of pesticides.


Bennett said those efforts are not producing a profit.


“When it comes to the bees … we’ve pretty well spent more money than we’ve taken in,” he said. 


“We started to do this before we had any money to do it. We saw it was important and needed to be done, so we did it…. This is a major environmental issue. The bees are like the canary in the coal mine.”


Kalivas said charities don’t typically report how much they garner from a particular crusade and how much they spend on a specific campaign. 


“Environmental? That could be a million different issues,” she said. 


“If you want (your) money to be saving the bees, make sure that is (the) primary program of that charity. If it’s not, if they’re just using that (issue) as an excuse to raise funds, try to find a charity really focused on the issue…. That’s our number one advice to donors. Know your charity and know how your charity is spending your money.”


Thomson agreed it’s unusual for NGOs to provide a detailed breakdown of expenditures for every campaign.


“But it’s becoming more and more so,” he said. 


“If donors are … asking for it, hopefully it will become commonplace.”


If a Sierra Club of Canada donor contributes to a specific issue, Bennett said the money is used for that campaign.


“We do our best to make sure it’s applied in that area,” he said. 


“I don’t know in the audited financial statement if you can see that (detail), but we certainly report that (information) to the board.”