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Opinion I understand donor fatigue. I also understand cancer

Next month, I'm going on a bike trip with a couple of thousand other people. The 200-kilometre journey from Vancouver to Seattle will be the sixth B.C. iteration of the Ride to Conquer Cancer.

It's a cause that's close to me. Cancer runs deep in my family. My mother was struck with colon cancer; my father had prostate cancer. I have a sister who survived breast cancer. My brother, meantime, is in the midst of a valiant, but ultimately grim fight with the same strain that hit my father. And that's just my immediate family.

I've known dozens of others – friends, colleagues, relatives – who've had to face this rotten illness. Some have won their fights; others haven't. So, as it is for most Canadians, cancer is personal for me. So it's compelled me to do something that doesn't come naturally – hit people up for money. I have become my own fundraising machine, which, in turn, has offered me a small window in the world of charitable giving.

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I'll be honest: I cringe a little when I send out e-mails or put up Facebook posts looking for pledges. It's because I know how financially tapped many people are. And I'm aware from first-hand experience how regularly people are beseeched to support various causes. There isn't a day that goes by that the mail doesn't include a solicitation from some charitable organization looking for help. Donor fatigue is real.

"There is certainly much more competition these days for people's donation dollars," says Cathy Barr, senior vice-president of Imagine Canada, an umbrella organization for charities across the country.

Internet-facilitated fundraising methods, such as crowdsourcing, allow people to raise money for niche causes that might be closer to the heart than those supported by large, amorphous entities such as the United Way, which has seen a steady decline in donations over the past five years in Greater Vancouver.

Across Canada, governments are supporting charities less than they once did. Consequently, we now see hospitals and universities launching massive fundraising drives that eat up huge chunks of the available pledge pie. One in seven charities is under heavy financial strain. The number of volunteers that organizations count on is also in decline. The economy has doubtless had an impact on the charitable giving landscape as well – people have less discretionary income.

Canadians gave less to charity in 2012 than 2011, according to Statistics Canada. The percentage of people who reported donations was also slightly down. Roughly 20 per cent of the population contributes 80 per cent of money handed over to charities. New donors are harder and harder to come by.

There are other theories about what we're witnessing.

According to Ms. Barr, whose organization does extensive research into donor habits, there is a strong relationship between attendance at religious services and charitable giving – not just to spiritual causes but charities more generally. "And there's been a pretty steep decline in attendance at religious services," she said.

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By world standards, Canada is still an extremely generous country. But a donor base that is contracting against a growing population leaves more charities vulnerable. The B.C. Cancer Foundation, however, remains a bright light on the charity scene – likely because it fronts a cause that affects so many of us. Over the past five years, the B.C. Ride to Conquer Cancer has raised more than $50-million for cancer research. Each rider is responsible for raising a minimum of $2,500 in donations.

"One of the reasons the ride is so powerful is it's difficult to do," says foundation president and CEO Doug Nelson. "And when you're training and doing the ride, you have time to think, so there is a period of reflection involved with it.

"Raising a significant amount of money is a challenge for some people. But they really want to make a difference, so they have a personal investment in the cause."

Training has certainly given me time to contemplate the impact this disease has had on my family and others. I will ride in memory of my parents and my tough sister and my courageous brother and anyone else who's had to confront this dreadful ailment. More than anything, I'll ride in hope that I see a cure in my lifetime.

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