Save our culture of giving

January 12, 2010
National Post

Unless action is taken by governments to support charitable behaviours and the institutions that underpin them, the work they perform will increasingly fall to governments that deliver them at a much higher cost to taxpayers.


As Canada adapts in the year ahead to the conflicting priorities of emissions management, industrial development, fiscal prudence and sustenance of pension and health-care commitments, the nation's culture of generosity is at risk of achieving endangered species status and shifting an even greater social burden to governments.

As the recent Cardus study, A Canadian Culture of Generosity, shows, 85% of adults say they donate to charity annually, and between a quarter and a third of us volunteer in organizations engaged in the ground-level street battle against homelessness and other social scars. However, fewer than 30% of us now account for 85% of total hours volunteered, 78% of total dollars donated and 71% of all civic participation. Dig a little further and we discover that there is a primary civic core of about 6% of the population that does about five times its proportionate share and a secondary group of 23% of the population that does about double its share. They carry the remaining 71% of the population.

While some measure of disproportionality is expected, given the different stages of life, resources and aptitudes that make up the population mosaic, these patterns are not sustainable. Researchers tell us the features that distinguish the civic core are not the sort of characteristics which will automatically replenish themselves but rather are founded in certain habits of the heart that incline them to the common good.

Unless action is taken by governments to support these behaviours and the charitable institutions that underpin them, the work they perform will increasingly fall to governments that deliver them at a much higher cost to taxpayers.

The sixth report of the Standing Committee on Finance that was filed earlier this month in the House of Commons touched on these key areas with references to general requests made of it to enhance the percentage of charitable giving that may be deducted for tax purposes, and also to a raise the basic $200 exemption.

The report also recommends that the government investigate incentives to levels of giving by businesses and individuals and consider hiking the charitable tax credit to 39% for incremental annual giving, provided that giving is more than $200 and less than $10,000. Further, it suggests the creation of a corporate structure for not-for-profits that would allow the issuance of share capital and other securities as well as the elimination of capital gains tax on donations of real estate and land to public charities.

These are practical suggestions to address a concern that will not be resolved simply by a moralistic campaign, or by privatization. All stakeholders are needed to do their part to create a new culture of giving, to improve the social environment, to mobilize citizens to become part of the civic core and to strengthen Canada's charitable sector.

Although the issue is much broader than politics, the importance of leadership cannot be overlooked. We recommend highlighting the importance of the charitable sector by increasing the charitable tax credit for donations over $200 from 29% to 42%. Since Alberta and British Columbia increased their provincial tax credits for charitable organizations, donations to charities have increased in each province by more than 5%.

Initiatives should include seeking an understanding of faith-based organizations and their role. Dealing with faith and its implications in a multicultural country has its challenges, but pretending that faith is not a motivating factor is self-deluding. Even when we factor out everything people of faith give to faith-based institutions, people who are active in their faith communities give more and volunteer more in general, too.

Canadian society today thrives in large part because of the culture of giving and civic investment that is practised routinely by a small minority of the population who comprise Canada's civic core. If trends toward disengagement deepen and become entrenched, it will be much more difficult to reverse these patterns in the future. Strategic action is required now if Canada's culture of giving is to survive the next generation.

-Ray Pennings is senior fellow and director of research for Cardus.