The 30-Year Giving Itch: New report shines a long light on Canada's philanthropic trends

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More than just scratching at the surface of the “giving economy” in Canada, a new report by the nonprofit sector’s primary advocacy agency may just be the most comprehensive longitudinal study ever in Canadian charity sector history – and many Canadian sector organizations may have missed this bit of info-packed news.

Some 30 years in the making, this joint effort from Imagine Canada and the Rideau Hall Foundation titled 30 Years of Giving in Canada, The Giving Behaviour of Canadians: Who gives, how, and why? is an unprecedented look back – and predictive look ahead - at how we have, are and will evolve as a society of givers.

The report, released in April 2018, is nearly 100 pages of in-depth, detailed information, with data sourced from 1985 through 2014. And if you work anywhere in or around the charitable sector, this is a must read.

As the authors – Imagine Canada’s David Lasby and Cathy Barr, respectively Director, Research & Evaluation and Vice-President, Mission Effectiveness - explain in their preamble, they did a pretty thorough dive into data to put this monster report together:

“Thirty Years of Giving in Canada draws on a number of different data sources to present a detailed and comprehensive picture of charitable donations in Canada and the giving behaviours of individual Canadians. It uses taxfiler data to explore how levels of giving have changed over the past three decades, with a specific focus on trends by sex, age, income and region. It uses survey data to look at donors – the causes they support, the ways they give, their motivations for giving, and what prevents them from giving more. It discusses how the rise of the Internet and new forms of online interaction have affected giving, as well as how giving is learned. Finally, it presents detailed analyses of the behaviours and attitudes of three key population groups: younger Canadians, older Canadians, and new Canadians.”

Reeling in the years...

There’s way too much data to try to encapsulate in one story, but some of the high-level findings include stats on giving by world rankings, sex, age and region:

  • Based on international comparisons using giving calculated as a percentage of GDP, Canada ranks 3rd on the list of countries with populations who give the most to charity. We are slotted only behind the US and New Zealand.
  • Total donations claimed by Canadians have increased approximately 150% in real terms over the past three decades, going from $4.0 billion in 1985 to $9.6 billion in 2014.
  • From 1985 to 2014, men claimed more charitable donations and also donated more than women, on average.
  • By 2014, people aged 40+ accounted for 77.9% of all donors, compared to only 58.4% in 1985. Meanwhile, since 1985 donors younger than 40 went from 41.6% of donors to only 22.1%.
  • Average donation rates from the Boomer and Gen X generations are on the rise; but there are “significant uncertainties” about whether Gen Y will follow a similar giving path throughout that generation’s lifespan.
  • Over the 30 years studied, residents of the Prairies and Ontario were more likely to claim donations than residents of other regions, with Quebeckers claiming the least.
  • Since 2004, giving to religious organizations has decreased, while giving to international organizations has risen. But, looking at overall giving by cause, Canadians still give the most to religious organizations at 40%, while the categories of health, social services and international organizations garner a combined 35% of giving by Canadians.

And there is much, much more where those stats came from.

Imagine what will be

Two of the key findings of 30 Years of Giving in Canada, according to Imagine Canada, are crucial to understand for the charitable sector. First, that new citizens give more than native-born Canadians, with the average donation by a naturalized citizen at $672 compared to $509 among those born in Canada. Second, that younger Canadians perceive barriers to giving, including not being asked to give more and not knowing where to donate.

“This report provides an essential understanding of the demographic trends re-shaping the future of philanthropy in Canada,” Bruce MacDonald, president and CEO of Imagine Canada said. “Charity and nonprofit leaders need to be asking questions about their vital sources of revenue in light of donor shifts highlighted in this report. This analysis will also serve to provide much needed data to inform the important dialogue between sector leaders and government to strengthen civil society and enable social good organizations to thrive.”

Given Canada’s ever-increasing multicultural demographic – heavily weighted by the continuing influx of immigrants and burgeoning naturalized Canadian demographic – an important point that keeps appearing throughout 30 Years of Giving in Canada is the need for charities to find ways to engage with these populations.

The information suggests that newcomers of all ages may feel less inclined to give because they simply do not know which causes are available to choose from. It sounds simple, but it is entirely possible that discovering where these populations get their news and general information on a daily basis, could help influence more giving by positioning an organization’s cause in the relevant media accessed by newcomers.

Aging out of the gift

The report ends on a mixed note. In the “Conclusions” chapter, the authors write:

“We estimate that in 2014, Canadians gave approximately $14.3 billion in receipted and unreceipted donations to registered charities. Claimed donations have increased 150% in real terms since 1984. However, the proportion of taxfilers claiming donations has been falling steadily since 1990, which means that charities are relying on an ever-decreasing proportion of the population for donations.”

As is already well known among professional fundraisers, nonprofit marketers and charitable leaders of all stripes, most organizations receive the bulk of their donations from older generations. Nowadays, this means the Boomers. This report reflects that trend, but also gives some strategic advice for the sector on how to move forward in courting the young adult donor.

“Although they give less than earlier generations, young Canadians do have enerally positive attitudes towards charities,” states the report. And it behooves charities to start focusing more on connecting with this cohort in order to ensure fertile ground for continued giving in the future. How does that look? Well, social media is one method being effectively tapped for this goal. Related to that, charities that don’t already have robust digital strategies as part of their operations need to get on board in order to reach the next generation of givers.

Beyond proactively staffing for digital expertise, the report also calls for sweeping action on a broader scale, asserting that school boards expand curriculums to include “formal efforts to teach young people about giving, in both secondary schools and in colleges and universities.”

And the sector says...?

Asked what kind of feedback they are getting from sector clients and stakeholders in terms of how the report is impacting strategic planning, Imagine Canada’s President and CEO Bruce MacDonald said it was still too early to tell.

“What we are hearing is that organizations are interested in seeing if their giving patterns align with the national trends. Are they reliant on a shrinking, older, wealthier donor pool? I think this will lead to some questions being asked at board tables and hopefully, this data will serve as a catalyst for inquiry and change,” he said.

MacDonald added that the report has “clearly...opened up new lines of exploration.” What it all means for the future of giving is still up for some debate. But the rich data in this report, once analyzed by sector organizations in their own “deep dives” of the document, are sure to contain important signposts in order for organizations to formulate revenue strategies going forward.

Andy Levy-Ajzenkopf is a professional writer living in Toronto. He can be reached at

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