Philanthropy and diversity: the role of culture in giving

publication date: May 20, 2011
author/source: Janet Gadeski
What's it like to raise money for a hospital that serves Canada's most diverse population? Verna Chen, Gina Eisler and Waheeda Rahman can speak to that better than anyone. In Scarborough General Hospital where they work, you'll hear 100 languages spoken daily. The trio was a natural choice for one of the first breakout sessions at Diversity and the Spirit of Giving, the annual conference of the Canadian Association of Gift Planners held in Toronto in April.

By 2031, Statistics Canada estimates that one in three Canadians will belong to a visible minority. In Toronto, 60% will belong to a visible minority by 2031. Yet as important as cultural and other awareness is, Rahman emphasizes that it's just a starting point. Drawing conclusions based on cultural patterns can desensitize you to differences within a given culture, she warns - a fact clearly underlined by a panel of "diverse donors" the following day (watch for this in a future issue).

Research challenges

You can research diverse donors and prospects using the usual measures of affinity, capacity and inclination - but add a page or two to the file for their cultural and religious sensitivities. Some cultures are highly collective, for example, and abhor public recognition of individual generosity. Some will find it offensive to be approached for a second gift. Others won't discuss death with outsiders, which means a much longer time line and a very careful approach to planned gifts.

Even the concept of fundraising may be completely foreign to some. "When I go to China, no-one understands what I do," says Chen, the hospital's research manager.

Charity begins at home

One trend of which Chen is certain is that the longer immigrants have lived in Canada, the more likely they are to give. Their donations are higher than those of newer immigrants, but given less often than comparable Canadian-born donors. If immigrants were already wealthy when they arrived in Canada, she continues, they're likely to direct their philanthropy "back home" to their birth country.

Chen derives some of her most helpful research leads from careful attention to the business community. Look at the businesses in your back yard, she advises. How many employees do they have, and of what nationalities? Local MPs, religious groups, cultural centres, professional associations and business associations may all be sources of valuable information in the public domain. Be careful with names, she points out, as the English order of individual name-family name is reversed in some cultures. Others, such as the Tamil culture, change even the family name from one generation to the next.

Once focused on particular prospects or donors, Chen notes details such as their perception of health care in Canada, the key influencers in their community, the role of their religion in philanthropy, their understanding of philanthropy, and whether the family's experience with her organization was positive, or impaired because of cultural issues.

Understand the eye of the beholder

Eisler, the hospital's philanthropy VP, closed the session with some practical tips. Prospects from less developed countries may not perceive your facilities or programs as inadequate, she points out. Nor do immigrants always understand why public institutions have to raise money, assuming that Canada is a wealthy country where governments fully fund all essential services.

Be aware of beliefs and attitudes about everything from lucky numbers to unlucky colours, the importance of flowers to the unimportance of individual acknowledgement. Ask questions if you aren't sure - a respectful enquiry sends a message of sensitivity and inclusion.

"Every culture gives," she assures us. "Every faith gives. It's just a matter of to whom they give." Just like the donors to whom you may be more accustomed, everything depends on your sensitivity to their timing, their attitudes, and their readiness to give.

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