The Skinny on Why We Fundraise and on the Support We Receive from Major Funders

Not too long ago, I had lunch with one of my favorite people, a long-standing colleague and friend. We talk about a wide range of things when we meet, and most of the time we are putting our heads together about how to create synergy between our two organizations. We enjoy the ability to be frank with each other, which is especially helpful when we disagree about something.

At this lunch, one of the topics we covered was her criticism of a posting I did on my personal blog in July of this year called, “Let’s play pretend.” In that posting I voiced a number of criticisms of funders.  Her primary issue with my posting was that it lacked, in her opinion, balance. It did not, she said, provide information about the good things funders do and are working on to strengthen community life as well as their relationships with agencies. She felt it failed to adequately represent the significant funding agencies like Bissell Centre receive each year.

She was correct. The balance could have been stronger. I did explain that my intent was to stir the pot more so than provide a positive-negative accounting of funder actions locally. I believe there are many structural problems that agencies like Bissell Centre experience at the hands of the funder community, and I do not believe that funders are collectively addressing this. I will continue to write about these issues and challenges, and advocate for change. That said, this posting is my attempt to offer more balance to ensure fairness and to provide Bissell Centre supporters with a bigger, fuller picture.

Later on in this posting (see An Overview of Support from our Major Funders) I share some of the good news experiences we have with our major funders. All of the support you will read about is critical to our work and I am grateful, truly. That said, it is also the case that Bissell Centre has to raise $2 million in donations this year to ensure that many of our programs can continue to operate. These programs include our drop in centre, free child care services, family support services, recreational and wellness programming, volunteer services (we recruit, deploy, and support 1,000 volunteers per year), and others. As well, we have to fundraise at times to ensure we can cover all the costs of a contracted service, which are typically government contracts.

Our infrastructure costs exceed what funders provide and, trust me, we are very good at getting free and low-cost services from suppliers. Most funders seem to be content knowing non-profits have to pay their staff lower wages than funders pay their staff. However, as CEO of Bissell Centre, I believe our incredible staff should not be paid sub-par wages. They work hard and deal every day with the kinds of human problems that most of us will never experience: deep poverty, homelessness, severe mental illness, the trauma of sexual abuse, and the list goes on. They are skilled and knowledgeable and deserve a decent wage and benefits.

All of our major funders have limited resources. The reasons why their funds are limited are open to discussion and debate. Some say there is a finite amount of money and at a very macro level that might be true. Others say – and I admit to being one of them – that limited resources in any government or funder resource stream are the result of decisions made by those in power.  Our reality is that choices are made about how public, community, and private dollars are spent. Those in positions of power are faced with difficult decisions and I believe they work hard to make good decisions, based on a matrix of priorities. Even so, it is reasonable to raise questions about current priorities, how things might be better prioritized, and so forth. My board expects that of me. You do, too. I think the same expectation is reasonable to direct towards those who control the purse strings on doing social good.

Regardless of where you sit on that subject, at Bissell Centre we choose not to be stymied by the limitations of our major funders. That is why we fundraise. Not only do we have to cover what funders don’t, we want to do more. We believe the community members we serve deserve more.

We are blessed with so many who help us do just that. Each year we receive significant support from the United Church and its many congregations and women’s groups. Service clubs, unions, associations, businesses of all sizes, and many community and corporate foundations step up with their support each and every year. Individuals from across the city and beyond send in donations of cash and also clothing and household items.

Each year we generate approximately one-third of our budget. I already mentioned the $2 million we need to fund raise, but we also earn a fair amount of income. Our Thrift Shoppe is one example. Its revenues not only pay for the operations necessary to provide very low priced used clothing to low income people, but it also funds our free clothing outlet at our downtown offices. We are currently transforming Moonlight Bay Centre into a retreat centre, a place where weddings take place, organizations meet, and other groups hold camps and other events. We use those revenues to fund free family camps for low income parents and children. We decided to take this approach because frankly there are no major funders that choose to provide ongoing funding to family camps for low income families.

We have more ideas along those lines that we are working on right now.  After all, I believe we should not fundraise for things we can take care of ourselves.

Again, my intent here is not only to explain why we fundraise and need your support but also to be open and transparent about the support we get from our ongoing funders and contracts. I think Bissell Centre donors deserve to know the full picture. Charities that just paint a hard luck picture are not always painting the full picture. Bissell Centre wants to paint a good news picture, one that invites and celebrates the community’s engagement in and support of our work to end poverty and homelessness.

If you are interested in knowing more about what Bissell Centre is up to and where we are headed there are numerous ways to learn more. All of our services are listed and explained on our new website, and there are specific reports and postings that will give you a good sense of who we are and what we are doing. Consider perusing our business plan or my most recent CEO Stakeholder Report on Homelessness.


For the past six years we have had two 3-year multi-year agreements with United Way of the Alberta Capital Region.  The first three-year agreement provided for more than a 20% increase to Bissell Centre. In the current three-year agreement, our program’s funding has been frozen. Of course that is a concern to me because our expenses go up each year.

However, United Way also stepped up along with other funders to provide $75,000 towards an innovative homelessness prevention initiative we have designed and are now prototyping. More recently, United Way has provided office space for a large Bissell Centre team on Stony Plain Road; it’s a two-year rent-free lease. That saves us around $20,000 per year and allows us to apply those dollars to service delivery.

Bissell Centre is funded by the City of Edmonton, through the Family and Community Support Services program. Its core funding has been flat for numerous years. Again that’s an issue for us in terms of addressing rising expenses in the programs it partially funds. However, since I took the CEO position at Bissell Centre, the City of Edmonton has come through on a number of occasions for Bissell Centre through project, emergency, and one-time funding. The city helped us with the fires that devastated our Thrift Shoppe, funded a food security project, and other one-time projects. I estimate the total additional contributions in the past three years has been around $170,000.  We would have struggled without that support.

Two other funders (foundations) have been key supporters of Bissell Centre over the years. The Edmonton Community Foundation and the Stollery Charitable Foundation. While these two stellar foundations do not offer sustaining funding to programs, they do provide important funding to help expand or launch new programs and services. In the past several years, these two foundations have provided hundreds of thousands of dollars to help Bissell Centre expand the hours of our drop-in centre and our family support program; they both are lead funders in our homeless prevention prototype (Community Bridge), and have provided other grants to support our work with respect to family camps, capital improvements, and more recently support of an art show of inner city artists which will take place soon at City Hall.

REACH Edmonton and Homeward Trust put their heads and funding together in 2012 to launch Bissell Centre’s 24/7 MAP initiative. These two funders were seeking innovative ways to reach street involved people 24 hours per day, seven days per week, offering assertive outreach, crisis diversion and the means by which to house the chronically homeless.  Bissell Centre is proud to have been chosen to be a part of that innovation.

Last year, Bissell Centre expressed interest in joining the Winter Warming initiative funded by Homeward Trust. We are now in our second year of offering drop in services during the six winter months, 7 days per week, 15 hours a day, including holidays. It is important work and it helps ensure that the homeless are not suffering in the harsh winter and experiencing frostbite or worse.  We could not be open so long without that support.

The Government of Alberta (Job Skills, Training & Labour) is a long supporter of our Casual Labour program and last year agreed to fund an additional staff person to help us recruit more businesses into the program. It also provided funding so we could undertake a feasibility study about how to expand our work into longer-term employment services. That money allowed us to understand new options and now we are building a business plan to move forward in that direction.

Three years ago, the Alberta Solicitor General saw fit to fund a unique to Canada partnership between Bissell Centre and Boyle Street Community Services – called Inner City Victim Services. This program has been successful in helping inner city victims of crime, often violent crime, work through their trauma, escape family violence, and, when warranted, receive restitution.

For the past three years, Alberta Human Services has provided additional funding each year to help increase the capacity of Bissell Centre and other service providers under contract with the government to provide market increases to the dozen or so Bissell staff working in the programs they support.

These sources of major funding and contract dollars, along with the earned income and fundraising we generate each and every year are what fuel our mission and vision work, both of which are about ending poverty and helping people — one person at a time — move from poverty to prosperity.  Everyone who plays a part in such support is critical not only to our current operations but also to our capacity to do more in the future.

I hope this helps put things into perspective for you. If you have any questions, let me know.

And, if you can, please donate to Bissell Centre. Every gift of every size makes a difference.

Thank you.

Anyone Can Be A Philanthropist!

Note: Sometimes we use the words “charity” and “philanthropy” interchangeably, and sometimes that makes sense. Some tell us that charity is about providing for the immediate needs of others while “philanthropy” is more about addressing the root causes of such needs.  My view is that both are more powerful when they work together. So when I use the word, “philanthropy” I am including “charity” as a fundamental part of the former.

Most often when the media mention a philanthropist, they are referencing a person or a family of considerable wealth who are using their good fortune to help address social problems.  While it is true that a billionaire can have more impact than I can, I believe anyone can be a philanthropist and that is what this series is about.

Wikipedia tells us that philanthropy“ was first coined as an adjective by the playwright Aeschylus in Prometheus Bound (5th century BC), to describe Prometheus’ character as “humanity loving” (philanthropos tropos).” Along the same lines, the ancient Greeks saw philanthropy  as the “love of what it is to be human” and that this love “is the essential nature and purpose of humanity, culture and civilization.” That’s a pretty lofty order, so to speak, but sometimes it is helpful to go back to the origins of the words we use so often to describe so many things.

It follows then (at least for me) that philanthropy is about acting on that love of humanity. And that is something each and every one of us can do and I suggest (in keeping with the wisdom of the ancient Greeks) is what each of us is called upon to do. Philanthropy is not reserved for the wealthy or those in positions of stature or power.

I remember standing with colleagues and other onlookers as we watched our second Thrift Shoppe fire burn the building to the ground. All kinds of thoughts and emotions went through my mind. How would this impact those who depend on us? Why is this happening to us, again? What can I do to ensure our staff are okay and how will I keep them employed? What will all of this cost? How will we ever replace the contents?


As I stood there, the community was already acting. While fire fighters did their jobs, all kinds of people were already on Twitter and Face Book organizing clothing drives. We didn’t ask them to; they just responded because they cared and wanted to do something to help. I believe all of them acted out of kindness and concern but also saw themselves as having a responsibility to act. I think their actions reflect a love of humanity, although each of them may describe it in their own words differently. I believe everyone who helped, no matter to what degree, were engaged in philanthropy.

A while back we reported here on our blog that École Joseph Moreau’s “Comité ESPOIR” (Hope Committee) had undertaken fundraising efforts for the third year in a row to support those less fortunate community.  This small group of Junior High students came down to Bissell Centre to learn more about the challenges faced by our participants and they raised more $750 in their support of Bissell Centre. These children – these leaders of tomorrow – are all philanthropists.

In May we posted on Face Book about some amazing women at St. Paul’s United Church who got together and made 50 beautiful quilts that Bissell Centre could give out to mothers on Mother’s Day and also as home-warming gifts for participants of our Homeless to Homes program. What motivated them to do that? I have to believe it was out of love for other human beings and I am sure an expression of their faith.

People from all walks of life phone us up about volunteering at Bissell Centre. Each year thousands donate and together they represent all age groups and people from all walks of life. More than 15,000 donate clothing and household items. Employee groups help out with painting or cleaning up the grounds. Businesses large and small give to us in so many ways.

When Servus Credit Union heard about the fire, one of their staff phoned me and said they wanted to help.After a couple of conversations they decided to provide matching funding to our #restorebissell campaign. Servus involved their employees in this who helped promote the campaign and when the campaign was over, they contributed $15,000. They just did this. We didn’t ask them to. Another example of philanthropy!

I have no doubt that all of these amazing people don’t just limit their acts of kindness to Bissell Centre. My guess is they help address needs and work to solve community problems in other ways too. I am grateful to all of them for everything they do.

Anyone can be a philanthropist. I have a feeling you might be one, too.

Mark Holmgren, CEO

Community Champions

The images below are of a number of recent community champions that took it upon themselves to do good for others less fortunate than they are. All of these champions are showcased on our Facebook page. And we want to point out the obvious: they are young people who care about their community!
If you don’t visit that page, please take a look and celebrate with us the accomplishments of these wonderful people.


Dan Pallotta on Rethinking How We Think about Charities

Activist and fundraiser Dan Pallotta calls out the double standard that drives our broken relationship to charities. Too many nonprofits, he says, are rewarded for how little they spend — not for what they get done. Instead of equating frugality with morality, he asks us to start rewarding charities for their big goals and big accomplishments (even if that comes with big expenses). In this bold talk, he says: Let’s change the way we think about changing the world.
His context is the United States, but his message is applicable to Canada’s charitable sector. Please take the time to view his video.

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