Where are charities on the radar screens of Canadians?

publication date: Dec 9, 2011
author/source: Janet Gadeski
Did anyone besides us wake up and wonder what's going on in the nonprofit sector today? That was pollster Allan Gregg's question to delegates at Imagine Canada's National Summit. Most of us ruefully admit that the answer is "no." Allan Gregg photo

That leads us to the next question: How do we draw a higher level of not just attention but consideration to the powerful, transformative work of Canada's nonprofits?

Though Gregg (photo at right) has done no specific research on nonprofit issues, he's one of our fervent supporters. There's an intersection, he says, among generosity, nonprofits, and the improvement of communities. And it's an intersection where more Canadians should gather.

How much do we share?

Let's take generosity as a starting point. Gregg says Imagine Canada's 2007 study on giving and volunteering makes "pretty depressing reading." Anyone giving $314 or more is in the top quartile of Canadian donors. And just 14% of volunteers were contributing one hour or more per week.

Yet 80% of Canadians reported making some kind of gift, even if it was just change in a can, and 85% provided some kind of help to people beyond their own families. The challenge seems to be, not giving and volunteering, but getting Canadians to move beyond that minimal level.

What makes the difference?

Not wealth. Not even attitudes of compassion. Canadians are far more likely to believe "we" should look after the disadvantaged than they are to give at a significant level. No, the greatest differentiators, Gregg declares, are the existence of a structure for giving combined with regular opportunities.

His evidence? Those who plan their donations give 66% more than spontaneous givers. Those who budget for donations give three times the average gift. Those on payroll deduction plans give twice the average gift. Structure and regularity, he says, even explain the tremendous disparity between the giving of church attendees (including their gifts to secular causes), and non-attendees.

Instead of trying to change attitudes, he continues, charities need to change behaviour by offering more structured giving opportunities through payroll deductions, asking businesses to match payroll deductions, and encouraging people to plan and budget for charitable giving.

Inspiring new Canadians

Gregg has more ideas about what's holding us back. Increasing numbers of immigrants arrive on Canadian soil, yet their experience as new Canadians appears to be deteriorating. Racial stereotypes hamper the newer populations. Their qualifications aren't recognized, their expectations are circumscribed, and they're not always easily integrated. Census areas that fit the description of "ethnic enclaves" numbered just three in 1981. Today there are 256 such enclaves.

All of that means that new Canadians are donating less. They have less and they're more isolated, with less of a stake in Canadian society. And the second generation reports more discrimination and less sense of belonging than their parents. While immigrant gifts were 62% as high as those of the general population in the 1970s, the ratio has been dropping ever since.

How do we bring new Canadians into the philanthropic stream? Gregg cites Adrienne Clarkson's inspired campaign encouraging museums and historic attractions to give free passes to new citizens. Integration and a sense of belonging, he says, are the keys to driving immigrant giving and volunteerism up.

Hooking non-retiring Boomers

What about retiring Boomers, often positioned as the next great source of work and wealth for nonprofits? "They may never retire," Gregg asserts. "They can't afford it." Higher lifestyle expectations, continued support of adult children, and shrinking investment portfolios will combine to delay retirement for many, he believes.

But there's another factor too. Today's 50- and 60-somethings are culturally different from their elders at the same age. "They've been in the spotlight throughout their lives, and they're not ready to go away now," Gregg explains. "This generation has redefined young and old, acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. That means they don't expect to retire just because they've reached a milestone age."

Drawing on his own extensive lifestyle research as well as that of others, Gregg spotlights one Boomer characteristic that may create a volunteer opportunity, regardless of their ability to retire. "The war of generations is over," he asserts. Boomers are friends with their adult children, and cross-generational bonds are stronger. And the charities who can figure out cross-generational volunteer opportunities will be able to attract entire families of adult volunteers.

These changes, Gregg concludes, are essential not just for the health of nonprofits, but for the health of Canadian society. "We have to strengthen the giving pathways. When we start losing faith in our collective potential, we have a deficit of social capital and caring for neighbours."

Photo: courtesy of Allan Gregg

Contact Janet by email; follow her on Twitter, @JanetGadeski.

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