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Although there are concerns about online donations, charities simply have to confront the shifting landscape of giving.paisan191/Getty Images/iStockphoto

The charitable sector is enjoying a rebound in donations thanks to a relatively healthy economy and stronger returns on stock market investments.

Last week, the Toronto Foundation announced that its total assets had reached $400-million, ranking it the fifth-largest community foundation in Canada. The largest, the Vancouver Foundation, has seen its total assets climb to more than $900-million. Another report on philanthropy from the United States said that charitable giving had finally risen above prerecession levels.

The most recent data on overall giving – released this January, but from data collected in 2013 – showed that Canadians remained generous with 82 per cent of the population making donations to charitable organizations for a total of $12.8-billion in 2013. And that was based only on those who bothered asking for tax receipts for their gifts. Many more donate money without getting a receipt.

While overall donations have been climbing, the numbers have also revealed some worrying trends for charitable organizations.

"Less Canadians are giving, and less young Canadians are participating. That's a bit troubling," Brian Emmett, chief economist at Imagine Canada, an umbrella group for Canadian charities, said.

In 2013, 35 per cent of all donors were aged 55 and over, six percentage points higher than in 2004. Donors aged 75 and over gave on average $726 – that was about $300 more, on average, than donors half their age.

The data also showed that a small number of donors contributed a large percentage of total donations. In 2013, the top 25 per cent of donors made up 84 per cent of all donations. The top 10 per cent of donors contributed 66 per cent and most of the increase in total donations was due to increased charitable contributions from this group.

"If you look at the data, the median donation per person is a little over $200, but the average is around $1,200," Mr. Emmett said.

He and other charitable sector leaders highlighted the growing need to reach younger donors, as well as to more effectively engage donors in general.

Despite a good year for donations in 2014, Rahul Bhardwaj, chief executive of the Toronto Foundation, said there is growing pressure to find new ways of strengthening relationships with donors.

"We are all being challenged, fewer people are giving and there's a lot of competition, with a lot of services being picked up by other organizations that are also resource-constrained, and everyone is going after the same philanthropists," Mr. Bhardwaj said. "The people that do give are giving more, but they are giving strategically and looking to be engaged in different ways."

This is the case for both older donors and younger ones, said other charity experts. "There's a real burden of trying to keep older people involved but at the same time get younger people involved," Eileen Heisman, CEO of National Philanthropic Trust in the United States, which produces the annual Giving USA Report on Philanthropy, said.

In what she refers to as "Philanthropy 3.0", Ms. Heisman said social-media fundraising – such as last year's immensely successful ALS ice bucket challenge – represents the future of young donor engagement. "Online giving is the fastest growing form of donations. It's currently only 12 per cent of all giving, but as millennials come into their own as digital natives, online activity is going to increase dramatically," Ms. Heisman said.

Although there are concerns about online giving, such as the difficulty of assuring future commitment from donors once a fundraising drive is over, it is all part of the shifting landscape of giving that charities simply have to confront. "When a charity is running some type of 'a –thon', a ton of donations are made online," Shannon Craig, vice-president of marketing at CanadaHelps, a non-profit that helps charities raise funds online, said. "But that's the reality of peer-to-peer fundraising. They've chosen a cause because their friends are involved; it doesn't mean they are any less loyal to other causes they might believe in."

Regardless of the method, it is up to charities to innovate in order to get, and keep, the attention of the next generation of donors, according to Imagine Canada's Mr. Emmett. "We need to figure out how to attract young donors, where they are, and whether they will be a sustainable group of donors going forward," he said.