Sonja Cunningham was 21 years old when she first started making regular charitable donations. She was approached on the street by a representative from UNICEF and was immediately moved by what she heard about how the humanitarian organization was supporting children in developing countries.
Ms. Cunningham couldn't afford much at the time, about $10 to $15 a month, but believed strongly that, as an adult, it was time to start giving back.
"Child-related charities have always been close to my heart," says Ms. Cunningham, who is now 32 years old, married and a mother of two.
She's among an estimated two-thirds of Canadian millennials who donate to charities, according to The Next Generation of Canadian Giving study conducted by Edge Research. It says millennials donate an annual average gift of $639. That compares with 78 per cent of baby boomers who donated to charities, with an average annual gift of $942.
While millennials may have less money to give today, they're considered an important demographic for charities to reach in the future. It's not just the size of the demographic, but its steadily rising income and the likelihood of receiving some of their parents' wealth when it's passed down.
"They have huge purchasing power," says Marina Glogovac, CEO of CanadaHelps.org, an online funding portal for charities.
"Millennials are shaping how giving will be. They're coming in, making certain demands."
That includes increased transparency and accountability around where their money goes. A study conducted by the Millennial Impact Project says 78 per cent of millennials are "very likely or somewhat likely to stop donating if they didn't know how the donation was making an impact."
Feeling a personal connection to an organization was also important for 72 per cent of respondents. The project also says nearly 70 per cent of millennials surveyed are willing to raise money on behalf of a non-profit they cared about.
The Edge Research study says Gen Y donors are more likely to support human rights and international development organizations. Ms. Glogovac believes that's due in part to their time spent on social and digital media, and its global reach.
"I think young people are genuinely concerned about the world, maybe more so than [older] generations," she says. "The Internet has removed barriers. The ease of use of technology is driving transparency, share-ability and what they expect from charities."
She says CanadaHelps is trying to facilitate those through its campaigns.
"I think this an opportunity for charities, it's a challenge and an opportunity and it's coming up fast," Ms. Glogovac says.
In the case of Ms. Cunningham, it boiled down to cash flow. After finishing school, buying a home and starting a family, she and her husband decided to increase their charitable contributions, including sponsoring a little girl in Honduras through World Vision.
"I really love feeling connected to the child and her community and it's been amazing watching her grow and change," Ms. Cunningham says.
As a public service employee for the province of B.C., Ms. Cunningham also contributes to an employee charitable giving fund through her regular paycheque, has donated to Black Lives Matter, Standing Up for Racial Justice, Wikipedia and is a member of a Syrian refugee constituent group.
At Christmas time, Ms. Cunningham also helps the Victoria Women's Transition House Society by organizing a gift hamper donation on behalf of a group of moms. They collect hundreds of dollars to buy gifts for specific families, including bikes for two brothers and a new mattress set and linens for a 10-year-old girl.
Donating to charities doesn't just feel good, it's a "personal moral imperative to give back and to share what I have," Ms. Cunningham says. "I have been incredibly fortunate in my life, and I feel that it's incumbent upon me to recognize and share that with others."
Ms. Cunningham and her husband set aside about 1 per cent of their income each year for charitable causes.
"Right now we are trying to get ahead of our own personal finances and pay off debt … as well as pay for daycare and pay off student loans … but it's important for us to carve out a portion for charitable giving and grow it as we get older," Ms. Cunningham says.
Ottawa's First-Time Donor's Super Credit (FDSC), introduced in 2013 and aimed at millennials, is also encouraging some to give back. The credit is for new donors who haven't claimed a charitable donations tax credit for any year after 2007. They qualify for an extra tax credit of 25 per cent on their first $1,000 contributed until the end of 2017, when the credit is set to expire.
Charitable organizations like CanadaHelps.org would like to see the credit continue to encourage not just millennials, but the next generation of donors behind them.
Ms. Cunningham isn't eligible for the credit, since she's been donating for years, but believes it's a great way to encourage millennials to give back.
"I would imagine that millennials would take advantage of it," she says.