A decline in charitable giving by Canadians should arouse policy makers' concerns, because charity ought not be just an optional action limited to the well-off or the well-disposed; it is an essential part of common citizenship, binding Canadians together.
Recent Statistics Canada data show that fewer Canadians are donating to charity - just 23.1 per cent claimed a donation on their tax returns last year, a thirty-year low. In 1990, 30 per cent of Canadians claimed a donation.
There are many reasons for the decline, and none of them make Canadians blameworthy. The recession made it harder to give, and a long-term stagnation in incomes has tightened middle-class family budgets. Religious participation, traditionally the route through which many Canadians give, has been falling. Other Canadians have simply become turned off from the act of giving, alienated by one too many fundraising phone calls, headlines touting the six-figure salaries of some charity executives, or the wasteful or unscrupulous ways of a few charities.
Governments have made giving more attractive, but their focus has been on loosening the purse strings of people of means. Malcolm Burrows of the Bank of Nova Scotia points out that the approximately 20 enhanced tax incentives in charitable giving since 1996 have largely focused on gifts of assets, not smaller cash donations. Governments have started matching donations during disasters, but they need to do more to sustain giving throughout the year.
Imagine Canada, the advocacy group for Canadian charities, proposes a larger tax credit to donors who donate more in a given year than they had given in a previous year. The Parliamentary Budget Office puts the cost of Imagine Canada's proposal at a modest $10- to $40-million a year.
The idea merits serious consideration, as it would help reward the habit and culture of giving for Canadians at large. If too many Canadians opt out of charitable giving, the character and face of Canadian philanthropy could change. Large signature projects such as hospital wings and university buildings which attract a few wealthy donors will keep getting built, but other sectors, and broad-based campaigns that depend on many small donors, such as the United Way, could start coming up short.
Charities, too, can involve donors, especially younger people, more in the causes that they fund. Donations and volunteerism work in lockstep. In these more austere times, a welcoming stance and a more aggressive tax policy will help convince more Canadians to give.