As the Executive Director of a Christian charitable organization in Canada, I am deeply grateful for the support of the Christian community across the country. A recent national survey by Statistics Canada indicated that in 2010 only 23.4 percent of Canadians claimed donations in their tax filings, and that average combined donations for the year totaled only $446. Imbued with a strong sense of stewardship and a grace-driven impulse to help others, Christians are comparatively generous people and their giving far surpasses national averages.
While support for charities among Christians remains strong, donor trends are changing in Canada. This changing landscape of generosity and stewardship invites our observation, reflection and dialogue, and I intend in this article to make a modest contribution to this important discussion. One of the important responsibilities I fulfill in my role is to interact with donors and other charity leaders and what follows are some conclusions I’ve drawn from these interactions. Though I do cite a couple of sources, much of what I share below is derived from personal experience.
Suspicion or accountability
At a recent meeting in which I participated, mention was made of the “increasing suspicion around giving.” My curiosity aroused, I began to wonder whether this was really the case. It does seem to be true that donors are holding charities to greater levels of accountability, but whether this stems from suspicion is difficult to determine. Accountability for charities should be welcomed, and in the case of our organization we made it a priority by, for example, partnering with reputable foundations in Canada which operated with strict reporting guidelines. The level of reporting expected from these entities could be construed as excessive, but it motivated us to report more comprehensively and effectively to our entire donor constituency.
Donors want to see results and measurable ways in which a charity is fulfilling its vision and mission. Charity leaders are now being asked, “What impact is your organization making?” rather than “What percentage of funds goes towards administration?” Donors increasingly recognize that charities face complex challenges that require competent administration to address and resolve. Achieving meaningful and long-term solutions to emerging global complexities requires strong financial and human resources. Wiring money around the world, for example, would enable us to operate with a modest administration, but our ability to make durable contributions to the communities in which we are invested would be impaired, if not jeopardized. Donors are rightfully demanding accountability, while at the same time recognizing that challenging and complex work requires strong resources to be done well.
Accountability also requires mature relationships between charities and donors, and here, too, the trend is changing. “Gen X-ers” (those born between 1965-1980) are taking over family businesses from the “Baby Boomers” (1946-1964). Their parents supported many charities, not wanting to say “no” to anyone. Children who inherit control of family operations are, unlike their parents, prone to select five of their favourite charities, build relationships with their leaders, invest heavily, allocate funds for these charities in their annual budgets, hold them to a high level of accountability, and say “no” and “God bless” to other charities.
Online giving is also changing the charity landscape. As I often remind our staff, whereas Baby Boomers give with their checkbooks, Gen X-ers don’t know where their checkbooks are, and Millennials (1981-2001) don’t know what a checkbook is. My assumption is being challenged, however, with a report that three out of five Canadians over 65 years of age are making online contributions. Widening the demographics, three out of every four Canadian donors transacted at least one gift online in 2010. This figure rises to nine out of ten among Canadian donors under the age of 35 (Source: Cygnus Applied Research, Inc.). Rather than cancel all mail campaigns, charities can use these for soliciting donations, as well as for driving people to their websites.
Sharing more than finances in a changing global environment
Social media is changing our perception of giving as well. Our contemporaries are keenly aware that giving need not be reduced to finances, but can include our time, expertise, etc. The wide diversity in giving can sometimes be obscure, however, especially on social media. Several years ago, women were broadcasting their brassiere colours on Facebook, simply putting in their status lines, “red” or “black” or whatever colour. This generated quite a buzz, especially initially, when few understood the meaning. It soon became apparent that this was a campaign to raise awareness for breast cancer. Women were contributing to this campaign by posting one word on their Facebook statuses. Was this really giving? No financial contribution was made. Did it create awareness leading others to contribute? Perhaps. Through “sharing” and “re-tweeting,” social media allows us to transmit information at an incredible rate, and enables us to contribute in diverse and sometimes modest ways towards a cause that captivates us.
Globalization has also changed our giving patterns. Having a strong preference to give either globally or locally, in the past people would often say, “I appreciate all the good work happening around the world, but my heart is for my own community” or, “we certainly have needs locally, but nothing compares to helping starving children around the world.” Today, those distinctions are rarely voiced. The globe is shrinking, and people generally recognize that global investments can also be local investments. We need not choose.
An unprecedented transfer of wealth is expected between generations in the next 20 years, and therefore legacy and planned giving options continue to be promoted. The results will have a significant impact on charities and should be encouraged. I am often regaled with stories of people who want to “give with a warm hand as opposed to a cold one.” People want to experience the joy of giving, and this can only be done while one’s heart is still beating. The challenge, of course, is that we do not know our earthly lifespan.
Amid the changing trends in giving, I remain optimistic and encouraged about the Christian communities’ understanding and practice of stewardship and generosity. The Bible is remarkably unambiguous on the topic of generosity and church leaders should continue to keep stewardship at the forefront of our hearts and minds. In some sense, every Christocentric sermon should inspire a life of thankfulness and generosity for what Christ has done for us. We love because he first loved us. We give because he first gave himself for us.