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Fewer givers, bigger gifts

Social shifts are transforming the way we support worthy causes

By Larry Krotz

If you believe a song in the 1966 hit musical Cabaret, money makes the world go around. “It’s such a lovely sound, money, money, money, money, money, money, money.” Perhaps trying to keep God and mammon separate, Christians have often felt uncomfortable with this, all the while understanding the harsh reality that cash is needed to get things done. Throughout history, money, often raised through tithing, kept churches running and financed other good works such as schools and hospitals.

In the last century, schools and hospitals have been taken over by governments, their form of fundraising being taxes. But in a trend that has accelerated in the past decade, governments are pulling back from paying anything beyond the basics. When your local elementary school wants playground equipment or books for its library, it must fundraise. Hospitals increasingly seek private money to pay for new wings, as do universities, to finance everything from chairs to scholarships. Everybody, including churches, needs to raise money.

But how has fundraising changed in the intervening 20 years? And what might be the implications for mainline churches?

Since retiring from active ministry in 1994, Rev. Albion Wright of Mississauga, Ont., has never really slowed down, continuing to hold such senior church positions as acting head of stewardship services, acting head of finance and acting executive secretary for Toronto Conference. He currently oversees “planned giving” — bequests or other sorts of donations that net the United Church about $20 million a year above and beyond collection plate and Mission and Service Fund offerings, says Wright. About three-quarters of it goes to congregations, and the rest to the national church and related organizations such as retreat centres. One of the most important recent changes affecting these donations, Wright says, has been the federal government’s allowing Canadians to donate stocks to charities without having to pay a capital gains tax on them.

Wright watches trends closely because he knows the church competes with other charities that want and need people’s gifts.

One unmistakable trend in charitable giving is a massive fragmentation of the landscape. There are 82,000 registered charities in Canada, and that number is growing almost every day. According to Imagine Canada (formerly the Canadian Centre for Philanthropy), religious organizations make up the bulk of these registered charities but are increasingly joined by schools, hospitals, animal shelters, Girl Guide troops, you name it.

While the number of charities is growing, the number of people donating to them is shrinking. But their generosity is not. According to Revenue Canada, Canadians gave $8.5 billion to charities last year, an increase of 8.3 percent from the year before, driven in part by a surge in mega-donors. It’s become commonplace to see dramatic newspaper headlines about multimillion-dollar donations from the likes of media mogul Ted Rogers and BlackBerry billionaire Jim Balsillie.

When they and others in the upper tier of the 20 percent of Canadians who support charities give big, they do it with a splash. Fading fast are the days when charity was given anonymously and, perhaps, out of a sense of sacrifice. Saturday newspaper supplements are now filled with photos of gala parties where the well-dressed and glitzy are seen giving thousands to some good cause while having a splendid time. Giving can be fun and, if you are of a certain social class, its events can fill your party calendar.

Added to this is a growing appetite for recognition — naming the wings of hospitals, universities or museums after the biggest donors, and constructing recognition walls for the rest.

Fundraising has become so sophisticated that few serious charities now operate without help from professionals, either consultants or in-house specialists. The largest chapter of the Virginia-based Association of Fundraising Professionals is in Toronto and boasts 1,000 members. The University of Toronto, for example, has approximately 200 people on staff dedicated to raising money. The United Church, Wright explains, has used professionals since the 1950s when a U.S.-based group, the Wells Organization, offered its professional services to congregations across Canada. It was an American fundraiser who co-ordinated Ventures in Mission, and the feasibility studies of the upcoming $200-million campaign have been contracted to Canadian consultants.

Karen Willson, incoming chair of the Toronto chapter of the AFP and also vice-president of Ketchum Canada, says the Internet is helping to fuel higher givings. “This is a tool charities are offering more and more to their regular donors and also as a way to get a newer level of donor,” she says. “Most people make their first charitable donation in their early 30s, and this group makes all its transactions online.” That’s just as well, because the volunteer pool, the people whom charities once counted on to go door-to-door on their behalf, is shrinking. “People are just too busy,” she says.

Willson shows me one of her company’s latest studies and points to pie charts that illustrate how the charitable landscape is shifting. The growing categories? Environment and the developing world. “People are very conscious of environmental causes and increasingly of the needs of faraway places,” she says.

A graph identifying types of charities under the headings of education, health, community benefit, welfare and religion shows religion representing 40 percent. “Fifteen years ago it was 55 percent,” says Willson, “and it continues to shrink.” But an accompanying graph shows religion is still the largest category by far in terms of the number of individuals who make gifts. Which reminds me of something Albion Wright had hastened to say: “People who are regular church-goers tend to be among the best givers not just to their churches but to all charities.”

But other statistical information in Canada and the U.S. carries a coda that worries church fundraisers like Wright. The people who give the most money, for example, “out of strong loyalty and love” for the United Church, “are now over 70 years old,” Wright says. “And you know what that means.”

This was brought home when a friend who is in his late 40s explained that he and his wife support three charities: Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Doctors Without Borders and a gun control organization. Why? “Because the benefits are tangibly and immediately apparent.” What about their parents at the same age? “They gave all their spare money to the local church.”


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