Zack Gross
Zack Gross

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Views Changing on Charitable Giving

Brandon Sun “Small World” Column,  Monday, December 1 / 14

Zack Gross

New findings recently published about charitable giving show that Canadian public opinion is changing. 

The Muttaert Foundation, in a 2013 report, tells us that about 90% of Canadians believe charities are very important and improve our quality of life.  Yet, the support that non-profits and charities have enjoyed over the past generation seems to be eroding.  Given how charities depend on the generosity of our citizens at this time of year in particular, one wonders if alarm bells are ringing in the ears of organizational treasurers.

The main concern amongst Canadians would seem to be the overhead costs that come with operating charitable organizations, says a report from Imagine Canada.  Two-thirds of survey respondents across the country have expressed this view.  While some are concerned about their donation going at least in part to overhead, others say that they donate to causes where it is stipulated that the entire donation will go to programming, rather than admin. 

Imagine Canada CEO Bruce MacDonald argues that not wanting funds to go to administration is an indication of a common misconception, that overhead costs are a waste of money.  Without proper staffing, equipment, training and other components of “overhead
,” an organization will not be able to deliver successful programming, he says.  MacDonald suggests that before Canadians make decisions on donations, one way or the other, they look into groups and causes they are thinking of supporting and ask questions to allay any fears they might have about inefficiency or ineffectiveness.

My own experience is that not-for-profits overwork and underpay their staffs, often have inadequate infrastructure and have high personnel turnover for these reasons.  I recently had a fundraising telephone call from an international charity that I had donated to in the past.  The caller assured me that, if I signed up to a monthly donation plan, none of my giving would be spent on overhead.  My response was that I was happy to put money toward overhead as my own experience was that this type of spending was needed.  The person at the other end of the line was surprised by my offer.

Canadians hold differing amounts of trust toward various types of charities.  Tops on their list are hospitals and children’s charities in the 80%s, while international aid charities stand at about 50%.  In comparison, small business is trusted by 80% of the public while major corporations are trusted by only 40%.  Interestingly, Canadians strongly (over 80%) support the idea of Canadian charities developing businesses that help them raise money.  We see this today in thrift shops and craft stores run by religious, international aid and creative arts organizations.

Two-thirds of Canadians believe that charities better understand their needs and are more able to meet them than governments.  70% of Canadians believe that charities are generally honest about how they use donations.  Just one-third believes that charities only ask for money when they need it.  All of these figures express decreasing public support for non-profits.  Young people are more trusting of the charitable community than their parents:  in the age group of 18 to 34 years, trust runs at about 80%.

In professions, nurses are the only group whose trust by Canadians has not dropped in recent years, while lawyers, politicians and religious leaders are not as well liked as they once were.  Leaders of charitable organizations don’t rank highly either, and Canadians express concern that the average donor doesn’t receive enough information about how their money is spent.

At this time of year, many people pitch in in more ways that just donating.  One-third of Canadians say that they will volunteer time instead of money this holiday season, while one-quarter will make a donation in honour of someone rather than giving them a traditional gift.  Over 40% of Canadians like to donate for the joy of giving and in the spirit of the season.  60% say that they won’t be donating because they just can’t afford to.

These opinions, concerns and suggestions give us a snapshot of where the charitable sector lies in the hearts and minds of Canadians.  There is obviously some work to be done in order to better explain the needs of the sector itself – that is, in the area we normally call “administration”.  Is it too high or just not properly explained in fundraising literature?  Do we believe that those who work for the poor and the sick should also be poorly paid and have no benefits plans?

Canadians are known for their generosity and Manitobans and Newfoundlanders rank at the top of that list.  Cultural changes with our new generation of donors means that new methods must be found to recruit those who will support charitable work in the future.  What will a much more multicultural and tech-savvy donation base look like, of people who often think of themselves first as consumers and second as community citizens?  Only time will tell.


Zack Gross is a former Executive Director of the 
 Marquis Project, which has always enjoyed strong local financial support in delivering global education here and development projects overseas.

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