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Topics: Ethical Living, October 2019 | Society

How charity is changing in Canada

Three experts weigh in on our evolving relationship with giving


The charitable sector is in a bit of a cold panic. While overall donations remain impressive — to the tune of $10 billion in 2015, according to a report from CanadaHelps.org — they aren’t keeping up with population growth or inflation. In fact, the number of Canadians donating to charity seems to be on a downward trend. Back in 2006, according to that same report, nearly 25 percent of taxpayers claimed charitable deductions. Less than 10 years later, only 20 percent did.

Understandably, charities are keen to better understand why and how our patterns are changing. So we asked experts for their insights on current trends to better understand our evolving relationship with giving.

Money isn’t everything

“Millennials are givers, but they aren’t traditional givers,” says Devlyn Lalonde, an analyst with Ottawa-based Abacus Data. “They give at the same rate as boomers, but they don’t give in the same way.”

For its 2018 Canadian Millennials Report, the company asked 2,000 Canadians born between 1980 and 2000 about their giving habits. It turns out that 48 percent of this age group donated monetary gifts in the previous year, compared to 88 percent of baby boomers. However, 65 percent volunteer, as opposed to up to 45 percent of boomers.

“They’re giving of their time and their talents,” says Lalonde. They also really like to “give” through social enterprises, such as shoe, beer or soap companies that donate a percentage of profits to a cause. If they have to buy something, millennials would rather make a purchase with purpose.

Considering the hand that many in this cohort have been dealt economically, these statistics make sense. Lalonde says nearly 68 percent of millennials earn less than $70,000 a year. Escalating debt and housing costs leave little for savings, or for giving.


Lalonde says millennials are much more ad hoc about volunteering than their parents and grandparents. Instead of joining an organization and being a regular volunteer for decades, millennials will help out for an afternoon event one weekend and bake for a sweets table the next. “Millennials are much more transactional. Commitment isn’t their strong suit,” says Lalonde.

He recalls his own grandmother sponsoring a child in the developing world for many years. “Millennials aren’t doing that,” he says. It’s too much of a financial commitment, plus causes with hints of a colonial approach will turn away many young givers — this is a generation with firm beliefs.

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Tired donors

“Donors are getting fatigued with how they experience giving,” says John Bromley, CEO of Vancouver’s CHIMP (Charitable Impact), a donor-advised fund, which lets users act something like a foundation giving pooled money to causes. He sees digital tools enabling charities to make more donation requests. In theory, that could make us more generous, as we can easily click and give. But Bromley suspects constant asks are backfiring. “There are donors who are saying, ‘This isn’t really about the change that I’m trying to create, it’s about the change you want me to create. So I give up.’”

Dividing up the pie

While Canadian donation rates don’t appear to be keeping up with inflation, we might just give money in more fractured, less formal and harder-to-track ways. The $10 billion Canadians gave in 2015, for example, was calculated through charitable receipts from tax returns. That amount generally doesn’t take into account what people give via crowdsourcing platforms. GoFundMe alone, for example, has raised over $5 billion worldwide from 50 million donors since 2010.

Then there’s the five dollars at the grocery store checkout, the raffle tickets at grandkids’ sporting events or the items donated to the silent auction at school. According to Statistics Canada’s General Social Survey on Giving, Volunteering and Participating, which does take forms of unreceiptable donations into account, about four out of five Canadians aged 15 and older made donations in 2013. And they gave an average of $531 each, which amounted to nearly $13 billion.

“Culturally, there’s nowhere to learn how to give anymore.”

Learned behaviour

Bromley of CHIMP has noticed another shift: younger people haven’t necessarily been raised to think about the charitable sector and their role in it. Many boomers and previous generations, on the other hand, grew up learning about philanthropy through their religion.

The communities at churches, temples, synagogues and mosques cultivate giving back as an intrinsic part of everyday life. Depending on the tradition, it might even be essential for the hereafter. Fewer people are exposed to this, though, as our culture becomes more agnostic — 24 percent of Canadians have no religious affiliation as of 2011, up steeply from just five percent in 1971. “Culturally, there’s nowhere to learn how to give anymore,” says Bromley.

While religious organizations still receive more donations than any other type of organization in Canada, the numbers are declining along with membership. Another sign of our changing culture.

Show me the money

Some donors are asking questions and demanding to see results. So non-profits are investing in collecting data to show that their projects actually deliver.

Cathy Barr, vice-president of policy, research and standards with Imagine Canada, a charitable sector organization that provides accreditation and sets professional standards, says this has helped organizations fine-tune their work. “You could have a program that you’ve been running for decades, and you’re very attached to it and all kinds of resources have been spent on it, and people even love it. But maybe it’s not doing what it’s supposed to do,” says Barr.

There are downsides to tracking results. It costs money, which can be a strain on non-profits (especially the little guys) as they try to keep admin costs to a minimum. It can also put an end to valuable work. Programs that aim to get to the root of, say, hunger in a community won’t see results for years while a school breakfast program could boost kids’ attendance in short order. When charities know they have to pony up straightforward results, they may opt for easy-to-track projects.

Generous hearts

Sure, the ways and amounts Canadians give has changed over the years, but we’re still a generous nation. According to the Charities Aid Foundation, we rank 15th internationally in terms of reported giving. And the reason we give remains at our core: compassion for those in need drives 91 percent of Canadian donors, says a 2018 study.

“The research shows [younger and new Canadians] are motivated to help others, serve the community and advance causes they personally believe in,” said David Johnston, former-governor general of Canada, at the time of the study’s release. “Like the baby boom generation, which has sustained charities for the past 30 years, Generation X, upcoming generations and new Canadians understand strong philanthropy is essential to Canada’s future as a caring society.”

This story was originally featured in Broadview’s October 2019 edition with the title “Charitable challenges.” To read more of Broadview’s award-winning content, subscribe to the magazine today.

Diane Peters is a writer in Toronto.


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  • says:

    "Many boomers and previous generations, on the other hand, grew up learning about philanthropy through their religion."
    End the discussion right there.

    An older gentleman in our church always topped up the yearly deficit (when it occurred). When he passed, the church couldn't handle a deficit.
    When I became involved in Christianity, one of the first things I was taught was tithing (not in the strict sense, but I took it that way). When I talk to my children (and their peers) about tithing they look at me like I have three heads - I don't promote the prosperity gospel, but somehow God does bless giving.
    I'm at a loss when I think of those who lived through the Depression. They generously and faithfully gave, and not just monetary, I'm thinking pot lucks, and helping their neighbour when in need. Today's generation has far more wealth, but would rather tuck it away or spend it on their own wants (not just needs). They would rather pay the $10 for the Swiss Chalet dinner get together at the church, rather than invest time and effort preparing something.
    It will be interesting to see what happens if the Federal Government ever stops giving tax deductions for charitable donations - especially to churches.

  • says:

    Well, being single and costs rising and a senior unfortunately, I had to delete some of my charities! I'm sorry but I'm on a fixed income and couldn't afford them all anymore! Still have 3 and send clothes, food etc.