The overall positive numbers regarding Canadian generosity (85 per cent of adults say they donate to charity annually; between a quarter and a third of us volunteer) mask the reality that less than 30 per cent of Canadians account for 85 per cent of total hours volunteered, 78 per cent of total dollars donated and 71 per cent of all civic participation. Dig a little further and we discover that there is a primary civic core of about six per cent of the population that does about five times its proportionate share and a secondary group of 23 per cent of the population that does about double its share. They carry the remaining 71 per cent of the population.
While some measure of disproportionality is expected, given the different stages of life, resources, and various aptitudes that make up the population mosaic, what is concerning is that the patterns are not sustainable. Researchers tell us the features which 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.
Members of the civic core have an "otherness" syndrome that causes them to do what they do out of deep convictions. They share a set of beliefs that stress responsibility, connectedness and cultural renewal. They are committed to improving their communities through exercising and promoting personal and corporate responsibility. These citizens are often (but not always) older, religious, and well educated.
While in the paper we explore the data as it relates to giving, volunteering, and belonging to social organizations, we did not manage to get parallel data regarding how this relates to the decline in political engagement. Still, what all of these trends together point to, as Rudyard Griffiths stated out in his recent book, A Citizens Manifesto, is that:
"Join the dots of these statistics, and the picture that emerges runs completely counter to our own self-image as 'caring Canadians.' ...a significant portion of the population is doing little in terms of day-to-day behaviour to renew the social capital upon which much of the prosperity and social harmony in Canada depends."
The matter will not be resolved simply by a moralistic campaign urging people to give more, nor is the solution to be found in privatization. It will not do for one sector (government) to cast off its responsibilities onto another. 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 strengthen Canada's charitable sector.
Cardus's report - now available at https://www.cardus.ca/policy/ - provides 19 practical recommendations for first steps which might be considered by the various social institutions which constitute our social architecture. Although the issue is much broader than politics, the importance of political leadership cannot be overlooked.
We recommend that government highlight the importance of the charitable sector by increasing the charitable tax credit for donations over $200 from 29 per cent to 42 per cent. Since Alberta and British Columbia increased their provincial tax credits for charitable organizations, donations to charities have increased in each province by more than five per cent.
I would hasten to add that initiatives ought to include understanding of faith-based organizations and their important role in the public square. Dealing with faith and its public implications in a multicultural country such as ours has its challenges, but pretending that faith does not exist or that it is a motivating factor for much of the volunteer and charitable activity that goes on in Canada is self-deluding. A careful analysis of the numbers shows that even when we factor out all of the giving which people of faith give to faith-based institutions, it remains true that people who are active in their faith communities give more and volunteer more than those who do not.
The next chapter in the future of Canadian civil society has yet to be written. Canadian society today thrives in large part because of the culture of giving and civic investment that is practiced 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.
Ray Pennings is Senior Fellow and Director of Research for Cardus, a Canadian think-tank focused on the application of moral values in the public arena.