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John Baker (white hard hat), general manager for Inner City Renovation (ICR) looks over some plans with site supervisor Larry Laberge as a crew renovates an old bank into a credit union in Winnipeg's North End Thursday, October 20, 2011. Inner City Renovation (ICR) is a social enterprise in Winnipeg which does construction work and employs people with criminal records, former gang members, etcetera. (John Woods for the Globe and Mail)

JOHN WOODS/The Globe and Mail

This is part of The Globe and Mail's in-depth look at the evolution of philanthropy. Read more from the series here.

Civil society in Canada is strong, but the system that supports it is brittle. As The Globe and Mail takes an in-depth look at philanthropy in Canada, we should make sure that giving – of time, of money, of energy, ideas and expertise – is easier, and that charitable work has more impact.

Some Canadians are indeed generous with their money, considering the high level of public services we provide, compared with

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other developed countries. But too many are not. Only 23 per cent of tax filers now claim a charitable deduction on their return, down from 30 per cent in 1990, and their average age is 53. Religious organizations still receive a plurality of funds, and the biggest increase in giving amounts comes from religiously active people. Interest in volunteerism is static, at 45 per cent in 2004 and 46 per cent in 2007.

These rates are unacceptably low, and the trends are worrying.

Governments can make giving more attractive. A higher tax credit for first-time givers would introduce more Canadians to the habit. For past givers, the government can offer a "step-up" credit if they give more in a subsequent year. This last idea would cost only $10-million to $40-million a year, while increasing the median donation by 3 to 26 per cent and creating 600,000 new donors, according to the Parliamentary Budget Office.

Giving isn't just about passively providing credit-card numbers. Entrepreneurs look at a product, a service, and say, "I have an idea to do this better." More and more are taking that ethic to the world of philanthropy, starting charities to tackle problems such as illiteracy or crime rates in new ways.

"Social entrepreneurs" and their donors should be able to create bond-like instruments to raise large amounts of money, and realize a return when their programs bring savings to government. But all charities should expect more accountability in exchange for this flexibility, support and access to new funds.

How do we encourage people to give time? Turn to Canada's universities. They aspire to train better citizens. Many students are deeply involved in their communities; universities should take the next step, by making a certain number of public service or volunteer hours a requirement to graduate, as Ontario has successfully done in its public secondary-school system.

These efforts don't undermine government or public services; they enhance them. Many of our great public services – schools and hospitals – started as private or religious endeavours. Opportunities for new services, and for involving new people, abound.

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As charitable givers, and members of what the British government calls the "Big Society," challenge old and sometimes ineffective solutions, our institutions should support them. Creative friction among sectors makes our public services stronger. And the result, more giving and volunteerism, makes us more connected to each other.

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