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Feng Yu

When Governor-General David Johnston, who has made philanthropy a focus of his tenure, was asked earlier this year for his first childhood memory of generosity, he named, without pausing, his grandparents. They were Methodists and poor, but they still tithed, giving 10 per cent of everything they earned to their church. "The first 10 per cent," he stressed. "Not the last."

These days, we're more likely to think about "paying ourselves first" with that 10 per cent off the top. But not much beats the weekly passing of the plate in church for getting people to open their wallets to the cause. The donors are captive in the pews, ideally having just been primed with a sermon about generosity, and surrounded by a community of like-minded givers who will set the example for each other. Heaven for a charity.

But each year in Canada, fewer people are passing the faith-based plate, and the ones still dutifully handing it around are aging fast. If you don't go to church or temple or synagogue or a mosque, that probably doesn't matter much to you. But those who follow giving and volunteering trends know what it means: As the country's traditional faith institutions lose members, Canada loses some of its most generous givers, those who have been taught since Sunday School or long before their bar mitzvahs to put something in the plate.

"Who replaces that? Can you replace that?" asks Owen Charters, executive director of CanadaHelps, a non-profit organization that facilities online donating. Mr. Charters attended the Imagine Canada National Summit for charities and non-profits in Ottawa last week, where he says a top subject was how to instill a philanthropic mindset in the next generation – an issue that as grown as religious belief has declined.

"Younger people do want to attach themselves to a cause," Mr. Charters said. "The sector has to tell its story a lot better." But how? While the conference recommended improving tax incentives, research also shows that while donors appreciate them, they don't necessarily inspire giving. The consensus from the conference, Mr. Charters said, was that public institutions can't fill the faith gap. While charity begins at home, families still need a narrative to guide them – a message often lost in the cash competition among non-profits. "The 'inspiring vision' piece is a problem," he concedes.

"This is a hugely important topic," said Penelope Burk, the president of Cygnus Applied Research, an international consulting company on fundraising headquartered in Hamilton. "Religion has a huge impact on turning people toward philanthropy and keeping them pointed in that direction. Who or what is waiting in the wings to pick up the slack?"

Attendance at religious services has been falling in Canada for decades. In 2005, according to Statistics Canada data, one in three Canadians said they never attended religious services, up from 22 per cent in 1985. Among teenagers, this percentage is even higher: Survey data collected by Reginald Bibby, a national expert on sociology and religion at the University of Lethbridge, has found the percentage of teenagers who "never" attend a religious service doubled between 1984 and 2008 to about 50 per cent. (The "hardly ever" group composes another 20 per cent.) Only 21 per cent of Canadians over the age of 15 attend services once a week, down from 30 per cent in 1985.

But it's the last group – the most actively religious Canadians – who give the most, not only to their faith group, but to secular causes as well. They are more reliable even in times of economic downturn, and more dependable in a crisis, partly because they are easy to reach through their faith communities. They volunteer more – and more often in decision-making positions on boards.

"Philanthropy breeds philanthropy," Ms. Burk said. Taught early, "it becomes a life skill."

A 2011 online survey of 4,200 Canadian donors conducted by Cygnus found that those under 35 who were actively religious gave on average five times more than donors in their age group who were not.

Overall, donors who were actively religious gave, on average, three times as much as those who said they were "not at all religious," and more than twice as much as those who said they were "somewhat religious" or "spiritual."

Ida Berger, a professor of marketing and consumer behaviour at Toronto's Ryerson University, suggests that how a person gives comes down to three factors: their attitudes, the social norms and expectations in their community, and how easy it is to give – three factors that religious groups cover off handily.

People not attached to any religion. Dr. Berger said, are still asked to donate, but "the requests are anonymous or more random, and come in December, when you feel inundated."

Dr. Berger has also tracked how religion affects giving to secular causes – the pattern she found has been mirrored in European research. Using data from the National Survey of Giving in 2000, she found that Jewish Canadians did 72 per cent of their giving outside the synagogue; Roman Catholics gave 59 per cent outside the church; and Protestants, the biggest givers overall, gave 25 per cent. But even the latter group, according to her research, still doubled the secular giving of Canadians with no religious affiliation.

A sense of community is an important part of giving, said Dr. Berger, which is why cancer runs are so successful. At the same time, Ms. Burk observed, most charities, focused understandably on their own causes, aren't in a position to preach a broadly secular version of the spirit of generosity. She praises a recent segment on Sesame Street designed to teach children how to manage their money, which included setting aside a portion for "sharing," or charity – but Sesame Street's target audience ages out pretty quickly. Who picks up the message then? School? Families? Facebook?

"[Religion]is one of the few institutions left in society that actually teaches people about giving," points out Jeff Pym, the director of stewardship for the Eastern Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada. "Almost all other institutions teach people about consuming."

That's a story charities are hoping to change.

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