Promoting a Flourishing Society

Charity has a Political Problem

From the Archived "Cardus Policy in Public" Series

June 15, 2012

This week at the Rideau Club in Ottawa, President Michael Van Pelt offered a new perspective on charity as fundamental to the human condition, rooted in the work of love. In today's Cardus Policy in Public feature we reproduce his call for a renewed caritas: "Charity has a Political Problem".

Those of you with us this evening, who have followed Cardus over the past few years, will have noticed our increasing attention to, and emphasis on, the state of charity in Canada. Those of our guests who are with us for the first time tonight will be forgiven for going away wondering if it's all we talk about.

It is true, though, that we are deeply concerned by the current and future health of charity. We think charity has a political problem at all levels of government. This evening, I want to briefly explain why we think that, and some of the things we think should be done about it.

Perhaps a helpful place to start is by putting some lines around the scope of what Canadians mean when it comes to talking about charity. While charitable activity, whether measured as donating dollars or volunteering time, has shrunk significantly in the past few years, it remains a surprisingly substantial part of our economic, social and cultural life. Just how substantial?

As we pointed out in our 2009 research paper A Canadian Culture of Generosity, the "civic core" or "third sector"—so called because it is distinct from both the public and private sectors—accounts for 8.5 per cent of Canadian GDP. That is more than the combined GDP of Nova Scotia, Manitoba and Saskatchewan. It is larger than Canada's retail, automotive and manufacturing sectors.

I don't want to overwhelm you with numbers, but here's how that breaks down throughout Canada:

  • 750,000 unincorporated community and faith-based organizations;
  • 81,000 non-profit corporations;
  • Over 80,000 registered charities

When we think of other pressing problems such as the environment, economic instability, income inequality, law and order, homelessness and so on, charity is often a key, though unspoken, part of the overall picture.

Charity is present every time we help with immigrant settlement, every time we deliver a meal on wheels, every time a volunteer takes a senior to a doctor's appointment, every time a community comes together to sandbag the banks of a flooding river. I could stand up here all night making such a list.

So, if we're all so busy and charities are so important to all of us, what's the problem? Well, the problem is we're not "all" so busy with charitable activity. And it isn't so important to "all" of us. In fact, our research, supported by many related studies, shows that we are in the midst of a very serious "civic deficit" both in terms of the raw numbers of who contributes time or money charitably, and the trending in those contributions.

Let me put it this way: In October, we launched our new magazine, Convivium, aimed at fostering "faith in our common life". Cardus believes that there is an important place for religious faith in the shared life of Canadians. We also believe it is key to have a shared faith in a common life. Unfortunately, you wouldn't want to look hard at the numbers to justify that belief:

  • A decade ago, researchers found that only 18 per cent of adults in this country were responsible for 80 per cent of all financial donations to charities;
  • Nine per cent of the population contributed 80 per cent of all the volunteer hours;
  • A mere 20 per cent of adults were responsible for 66 per cent of all civic participation in Canada

It gets gloomier. Social scientists Linda Graff and Paul Reed alert us to the fact that people begin to move away from volunteering at about age 55, and the drop in participation increases sharply as people reach their mid to late 60s. Do I even need to say the words "baby boomers" to make my point?

A declining number of people are giving less—less time, less money, less of themselves—to their neighbours, their communities, and their country. And nothing, at the moment anyway, seems to be on the horizon to change that.

I don't mean to suggest no one cares, or that no one is doing anything. On the contrary, numerous groups have been hard at work trying to find solutions. In a presentation to the House of Commons Finance Committee in January, I presented an analysis of some of the leading proposals. Not only Cardus, but many organizations studying these trends have taken up the cause of rethinking the technical supports for our charitable sector. But this evening I want to focus on the human dimension: the political, cultural, social, and even religious dimensions.

Charity's political problem stems from the dominant strand of thought that seems to underlie many of our current policy choices.

On the right, we are dealing with essentially libertarian impulses that are so framed by the preoccupations of the individual that it is hard to see charitable institutions at work as important to community, responsibility, and a sense of social order.

Let me illustrate:

Professor Travis Smith, in an article in Convivium, raises a question similar to mine. He refers to Value Statement 12 of the Manning Centre's Barometer 2011 on Canadian political attitudes. Value Statement 12 asked respondents whether they agree to the following statement: "We all have a responsibility to look after those less fortunate than ourselves." Interestingly, disagreement with the statement qualified the respondent as more conservative.

So Professor Smith presses with this question: "why would conservatives choose to embrace this caricature of themselves....why would they accept this false choice....why would they willingly lose sight of the natural goodness and necessity of generosity as a virtue?

Now I am familiar enough with the Manning Centre's populist grassroots orientation and Preston Manning's own commitment to numerous charity organizations to know this doesn't characterize the intentions of the Manning Centre or the whole conservative movement.

We witnessed another example of this in the government's recent budget with the crackdown on charities involved in political activity. Of course, we all support proper accountability in anything involving public finances. But the conversation around the crackdown has gone far beyond that. It has created the sense that there is serious, widespread abuse going on among charitable agencies. Flowing from that is a generalized suspicion around the whole concept of charity—that somehow those engaged in charitable activity are "getting away with something" at public expense and at the risk of corrupting the moral health of the country. Underlying this is the assumption that it is somehow "more conservative" to regard charities as unnecessary, even parasitic.

Maybe this is just a posture many on the right have adopted to distinguish their politics from those on the left. Maybe it is a reaction to the ethos that has dominated Canadian policy for 40 years, namely that government must do everything.

So what of charities problem on the left?

Somewhere in the 1960s, the left's legitimate abhorrence of the cruelties that arose from dividing Canadians in need into the "deserving" and "undeserving" poor morphed into a conviction that only the State could dispense any kind of aid neutrally. Charity became more than a dirty word. It became the means by which power and oppression were perpetuated so that any act of giving or benevolence had, as its true intention, the perpetuation of social hierarchy for the giver by inflicting humiliation on the receiver.

The sense of this was captured perfectly by a group called Canadians for Tax Fairness in their submission to the Commons finance committee when they argued strongly against increasing the charitable tax credit. CTF wrote:

Causes upheld by the rich tend not to be in the interest of the poor. Control of allocation of resources by the rich through tax credits on charitable giving bolsters the priorities of the rich and reduces the diversity of priorities represented. This results in large sums going to support activities that governments could not justify if they were providing direct funding.

It's more than just historically interesting that this attitude came to dominate the left at the same time that the CCF/NDP origins in the social gospel and, indeed, in Christian ministry, were withering.

This brings me to charities next political problem: religion. For some reason, charity has failed to untangle itself from religion and carries that brand into the public square.

Now, at Cardus we argue that it is the very cutting of the link between religious faith and charity that contributes most profoundly to charity's political problem. But religious talk produces hesitations in politics. In fact, it can often stop political conversation cold. The result is that it is left out of the discussion entirely, which is bizarre given that charity through faith-based institutions accounts for an overwhelming majority of the donations made in this country. There is a significant disconnect between the accepted conversation of the public square and the reality of faith inspired motivations in the majority of our charity across this land. Such is our religious amnesia, that we have forgotten the very word "donation" has its roots in the concept of "presentation of a gift"—that is, something we give freely out of love.

Not that unease is always the reason for the eclipse of religion. Sometimes it is genuine oversight. Two years ago, Maclean's magazine partnered with Imagine Canada, the largest charitable organization in the country, to produce a 10-page feature on the state of charity in Canada. Those 10 pages were completely devoid of any mention of religion, spirituality, or faith.

Earlier this year, the Globe and Mail did a fantastic series on charity with some helpful data visualizations. Consistently the data analysis failed to recognize the influence of religions. In one visual there was a trending of the percentage of revenues of charities that comes from government. That number was 43 percent. What was overlooked is that there are literally thousands of charities that receive no funding from government at all. If you remove this category of charities, the percentage changes dramatically.

My point is not mere media critique. Imagine Canada is an exciting organization with collaborative leadership in Marcel Lauziere. And the Globe and Mail series is one of the best works on the topic, work that I often reference.

It is this "forgetting" of the real connection between religion and charity that has real world consequences, as Cardus discovered in our Calgary City Soul project. Briefly, we went to the City of Calgary last year to point out that their new downtown core plan lacked planning recognition for religious institutions even though it was predicated on increased density. After a review, city officials very generously acknowledged they had simply overlooked faith in the planning process, despite faith institutions being major providers of front-line social services. There was no malice. No discrimination. No hostility. It just never occurred to them. It was simply passive neglect.

I am reminded of what Cardus senior fellow and CRTC commissioner, Peter Menzies, wrote in an article for Convivium: "Faith is not killed violently. It is suffocated slowly by the withheld breath of the voices that remain silent."

What are some of the consequences of this?

The first is some of the language that is captured in our conversations about Charity 2.0 (the old way) and Charity 3.0 (the upcoming thing). That language suggests that we need to reboot the whole way we conceive of and conduct charitable activity. In the new charitable schematic, virtue and compassion, the alleviation of suffering, generosity, and altruism give way to "innovation to create public value" and "engagement" that somehow contributes to one's community. Charity itself becomes "good citizenship" and operates on a continuum from non-profit to for-profit business models.

The only thing lost in a technocratic leap forward is the authentic purpose of charity: loving our neighbours as ourselves. To be more provocative: will we allow charity to blend into the wallpaper of corporatism that characterizes our age? The gamble is that we obscure, perhaps erase, the deep human character of charity.

Secondly, I wonder about the merging role of governments and charitable institutions. What happens to charities when government revenues are such a large part of their budgets that charitable revenues are not material to their audited statement? What happens to charities when reliance on government revenues replaces the intentional building of natural communities of support around these charities? It is too easy to dismiss the relationship but also too easy to depend on it.

Finally, I am increasingly hesitant about the merging of business and charity. For the people that know me I have experimented more with social enterprise initiatives than most, and I have the scars to prove it. Metrics might improve. Motivation almost certainly will not, at least not in any enduring way. For if charity adopts the self-referential habits of simple good citizenship, how do our children learn to distinguish between enterprise and virtue? Where will the coming generation's genuine donations—the gifts given first and foremost out of love—come from?

How can we even imagine going beyond the language, and the reality, of donation? Isn't that like going beyond love? Is that like going beyond our neighbours and even ourselves?

Let me conclude with the words of Pope Benedict XVI in his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est—God is Love:

Love—caritas—will always prove necessary, even in the most just society. There is no ordering of the State so just that it can eliminate the need for a service of love. Whoever wants to eliminate love is preparing to eliminate man as such. There will always be suffering which cries out for consolation and help. There will always be loneliness. There will always be situations of material need where help in the form of concrete love of neighbour is indispensable.

Thank you