Fewer Canadians are giving to charity, and that’s a problem for everyone

For more than a decade, the number of Canadians who donate to charity has been in decline.

The number of Canadian tax filers claiming charitable donations fell from almost one in four In 2012 to just a little more than one in six in 2022, according to a Statistics Canada report.

“It changes the way I do my job every day,” said Ashley Travis, development and communications coordinator for the P.E.I. Humane Society.

Fortunately, the amount each individual donates is increasing, leading to a growth in donations overall.

But the trend still leaves charities in a precarious position, said Nicole Danesi, senior manager of public relations at CanadaHelps, a charity that supports other charities with donation processing.

Every donor becomes that much more important in the current environment, Danesi said.

Head shot of Nicole Danesi.A diversified pool of donors makes charities more secure, says Nicole Danesi of CanadaHelps. (CanadaHelps)

“When we’re relying on a shrinking pool of donors, charities are potentially at risk of losing funding if those donors do not choose to come back,” she said.

“We really want to make sure that charities have a diversified pool of donations so that their funding is not at risk, because they are providing critical services to communities across the country.”

In a recent study, CanadaHelps tried to determine the reasons for this trend.

The 2024 Giving Report found, perhaps not surprisingly following a period of high inflation, that affordability is currently playing a big part in people’s giving decisions.

Fewer friends, fewer donations

But the trend of fewer people donating predates the inflation surge. The report connects another problem in recent Canadian life to how much charities are getting: social isolation.

An online survey of 1,203 Canadians, commissioned by CanadaHelps and conducted late last year, found a close correlation between donating to charity and the number of close friends someone has.

Of the survey respondents who said they had seven to 10 close friends, 84 per cent had donated to charity. Among those who reported one or no close friends, only 53 per cent had donated.

“When you have fewer friends and family you may not feel as connected to your community and the people around you,” Danesi said.

“They don’t see that they can be a part of making a difference, they don’t see that they have a role, essentially, to play in their communities.”

From life insurance to stock dividends: The new ways people are donating to the P.E.I. Humane Society

The humane society in Charlottetown is entering a new era of fundraising. Ashley Travis, the group’s development coordinator, explains how stocks, bonds and even life insurance policies are becoming a new and popular way people are donating to the charity.

This research shows that the decline in individuals giving to charity matches an overall societal trend — Canadians are spending more time by themselves.

“We live in a time of great social isolation,” said Dalhousie psychology Prof. Simon Sherry.

“Prior to the pandemic we had issues with being disconnected from one another, and the pandemic era only accelerated that.”

Compared to 20 years ago we are spending about 24 more hours per week socially isolated, said Sherry.

A changing relationship

Statistics Canada data shows the number of donors is falling in every province.

In recent years, this trend has been particularly sharp on Prince Edward Island. In 2019, 19.8 per cent of tax filers reported charitable donations, a little above the national average of 19.0 per cent.

By 2022, the number of donors on P.E.I. had fallen below the national average of 17.1 per cent, to 16.9 per cent.

It’s something Ashley Travis has seen in her work at the P.E.I. Humane Society.

“The number of individuals donating has reduced quite a lot over the last couple of years,” Travis said. 

“We’ve seen somewhere around a 10 per cent reduction.”

A woman stands in a room of kennels with cats inside of them. Fundraising at the P.E.I. Humane Society has become more personal, says Ashley Travis. (Safiyah Marhnouj/CBC)

The animal shelter run by the society is entirely funded by donations, said Travis, so any decline has serious implications for its operation. Fortunately, as with the national trend, the amount of each individual donation has also gone up she said.

In addition, the way people give has also changed. The traditional, smaller-scale cash donation to the humane society is in decline, and Travis is seeing more people donating stocks, bonds, mutual funds, and leaving the society money in their estate.

A P.E.I. Humane Society flyer showing information about a cat up for adoption.The shelter operations at the P.E.I. Humane Society are entirely funded by donations. (CBC)

In previous years Travis had taken a broad approach to finding donors, running sweeping campaigns to describe the society’s work to as many people as possible.

Now, it’s more personal.

“I see a lot more face-to-face interaction than I ever did previously, which for me is quite a lot more rewarding,” she said.

“I’m actually getting to know these individuals. And from the charity’s perspective, it’s great because we have someone we can actually sit down with and thank and say you have made this impact. You have made this change.”

Inflation, pandemic compound the problem

While the P.E.I. Humane Society has found a way to navigate this new environment, the precariousness for charities remains. A few failed relationships can have serious consequences.

The problem has become more difficult to address in recent years. Inflation has cut into Canadians’ ability to donate, and as Sherry points out, the pandemic further entrenched a trend of social isolation that was already underway.

But there may be a way out of this spiral: donating to your local charity does not necessarily come down to money.

“There’s also non-monetary ways of getting involved by volunteering,” Danesi said, “and asking your local charities that you’re interested in supporting, ‘how can I help?'”

Get up, get out, leave the house

Sherry said volunteering could be a way of solving two problems at once.

“So many people are socially and emotionally starved, and perhaps charitable giving or community involvement in terms of volunteering are two ways to counteract that,” he said.

“What does volunteering do? You get up, you get out, you leave the house. It usually involves some sort of physical activity.”

Simon Sherry sitting in a room with a sofa behind him.Loneliness can be as deadly as smoking, says psychology Prof. Simon Sherry. (CBC)

When more people are engaged in what is going on around them, it’s a good thing — not only for the charities, but for society at large. It is also important for the individuals who are getting involved.

Research is increasingly showing that loneliness and social isolation can be deadly, said Sherry.

“Consistently you will see loneliness is as harmful as smoking, as alcohol misuse,” he said.

“I would think of the loneliness that aches in most people as a signal. It’s a warning sign not unlike, say, pain or hunger. It should alert you to needing to make a change in your life, perhaps even an immediate change. You should listen to that signal.”

Saying hello

Sherry acknowledges that getting off the sofa and walking into the office of your local charity is not necessarily an easy solution.

The order of cause and effect with this problem is not completely clear, he said. Are people not mentally healthy because they aren’t socially engaged, or are they not socially engaged because they’re not mentally healthy?

A cashier gives a broad smile as a woman checks out her groceries.Rather than just handing over your money to a cashier, try looking straight at them and saying hello. (Shane Magee/CBC)

If you are finding, in your current mental state, that walking into an office full of strangers and asking how you can help is overwhelming, Sherry has some advice on small steps you can take that recent research has shown is effective at lifting your mood and helping you feel more connected to others.

“That’s saying hello in a friendly and open way to the person at the grocery store. It’s saying hi to that neighbour you barely know as you walk by,” he said.

It’s known to psychologists as a weak-tie social interaction, and the research supporting its benefits is solid, he said.

“It’s a great way to start,” said Sherry.

“It’s a great way to come out of an era where for several years — where by policy and messaging — we defined people as pathogen carriers that we were to avoid.”

Danesi hopes charities can play a role in people leaving  that legacy of the pandemic behind.

“When we’re all feeling really connected to our communities we’re hoping that it really propels a trend forward,” she said.

“We’re all getting involved, we’re all engaging, we’re all caring about the issues around us, caring about each other and we’re ultimately making our communities better.”

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