Canadians aren't giving less, but how they're giving is quickly evolving

Some practical next steps your organization can take to ensure you're meeting your supporters where they’re at.

David Siekanowicz is Brand and Strategy Manager at The Meeting House. He recently wrote this post on how the ways Canadians give are changing. We’re grateful for his expertise and willingness to share!

Dramatic headlines get clicks—this is nothing new. And when you’re trying to make the results of a research study that looked at a ten year trend in charitable tax claims in the United States and Canada sound sexy, you’re really going to need a good headline.

The result? Gems like these two pieces by the Fraser Institute: 1. A surprising holiday fact —Canadians are less generous than Americans. 2. Charitable giving in Canada on the wane, hits 10-year low.

But is it true? Is giving down? Are we less generous than we used to be?

The study in question by the Fraser Institute makes this case by looking at tax claims filed in Canada and the US over a 10-year period. Their findings reveal a two percent drop in charitable tax claims made by Canadians in 2014 when compared to 2004. But some argue that solely using tax data to support such claims is misleading.

For the sake of not turning this into a 15-page rant about donations, charities, and tax laws in Canada and the US, my goal for this post is to quickly address a few of the misconceptions this study infers by highlighting the way donations and donors have evolved in Canada and offering some practical next steps your organization can follow to ensure you can meet your supporters where they’re at.

Numbers don’t lie, right?

Yes, the tax data collected by the Fraser Institute reveals that donation claims in Canada have dropped by about two percent. However, this has not been a consistent downward trend. Data from a 2013 Stats Canada survey reveals that the number has fluctuated throughout the period in question. For example, between 2010-2013 the total amount donated by Canadians actually increased by 14 percent. In fact, according to the same survey, 82 percent of Canadians claimed to have made a financial donation to charitable non-profit organization. Not to mention that according to the World Giving Index (Gallup, 2013) Canada ranks number two in the world when it comes to giving!

How do we reconcile this with the Fraser report? Ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-changes. How we’re giving has changed. Who is giving has changed. And understanding the how and the who is what separates the organizations that struggle from the ones that are able to successfully meet their goals.

How we give has changed

We give in more ways than just giving money. Canadians get involved and volunteer their time — at schools, hospitals, hockey rinks or baseball diamonds. According to Stats Canada’s 2013 survey, 44 percent of Canadians over the age of 15 volunteer. This amounts to a total of 1.96 billion hours per year, which accounts for 1 million full time jobs. Canadians participate in raffles and charity events like golfing tournaments and marathons. We give donations of clothing and food. We step up and provide what’s needed when our country opens its door to 40,000 Syrian refugees. We purchase or donate furniture, clothes, toys, school supplies for others; we offer our cars and bikes, and even our homes, to others.

Canadians are also constantly giving in ways that don’t meet the tax filter system. We drop our loonies and toonies into donation bins at the grocery story, red kettles on the sidewalk at Christmas, or while getting a poppy every fall. We like to use technology to donate $10 via text to organizations like United Way or Red Cross, and never expect a tax receipt.

In recent years we have also seen a tremendous rise in crowdfunding websites, such as GoFundMe, that offer Canadians opportunities to give directly to a cause, event, or individual without having to give to a registered charity. This cuts out the middleman, often at the expense of a tax receipt. Younger demographics, especially Millennials, have also taken up to investing in social enterprises and social-purpose business believing that communities can do a lot more with a hand up rather than a hand out. Again, since these organizations and the causes they support may not have charitable status, or have chosen not to operate as a non-profit, no tax receipt is issued.

So why the shift? Why have we started to give in these different ways? Because the donor base has changed.

Meet your new donors

The Canadian donor landscape has shifted and evolved in two crucial ways over the last 10 to 15 years. 1. Firstly, donors now demand more transparency, more accountability, and more clear progress markers than before. 2. Secondly, Millennials are now major demographic and they have different priorities, expectations, perceptions, and behaviours compared to the Gen Xers and Baby Boomers.

Donors expect to be able to access information through the internet whenever they want, or be reminded of it every time they log into Facebook or open up Instagram on their phone. If you can’t offer this to your supporters, then why should they continue to support your organization? The onus is on you to meet your supporter where they are and share with them the information they expect.

Millennials take the expectations mentioned in the previous paragraph to a whole new level. A 2013 study entitled The Next Generation of Canadian Giving found that Millennials are far more likely to demand higher accountability and transparency than other donors, and they have very distinct priorities and preferences with regard to the causes they support. They have also embraced technology to give in new and instant methods at a rate that is not matched by any other demographic. If your organization does not embrace and offer ways of donating using the technology and devices Millennials use, then you’ve messed up. In order to allow Millennials to support your cause, you need to meet their tech-centred lifestyle and allow them to contribute in the ways that are most natural to them. Donors are already giving online in higher numbers than ever before, and Millennials are leading the way in online donations, mobile/SMS giving, social fundraising, and giving directly towards supporting a cause without the need of a formal charity. The same study also revealed that half of the Millennials who made a financial donation also became involved with the cause or organization they were supporting in other ways. Social engagement is key in driving these types of responses which become part of the Millennial donors’ online persona.

The big “So what do I do now?”

Here are a few things to consider for your organization:

  1. Ensure your website and social channels are clearly communicating your story with your audience. Be transparent, be focused, regularly report success and achievements — follow through on your goals and offer opportunities for celebration and engagement.
  2. Realize that your website is critical in accepting donations, but that the real engagement happens on social media when you meet your supporters in the digital spaces they already occupy.
  3. Create engaging content and share the stories that your donor base will connect with. The content needs to be strong, but how you tell it is just as important. Videos, graphics, photographs: select media that are native to the social platform you are using to engage with your audience and create content that is worth sharing.
  4. Reach new audiences through your existing audience by creating opportunities for sharing. More and more audiences, especially Millennials, love going public with their giving and championing the organizations they donate to by sharing content with the friends in their networks. Allow them to become your online advocates and motivate their friends to get involved.
  5. Embrace new methods of giving and styles of advocacy that allow your supporters to give back in other ways. Create opportunities where they can give of their time and energy, as well as their physical goods.
  6. Begin using social fundraising, or peer-to-peer fundraising, as a core part of your strategy. Social fundraising empowers your supporters to raise money on your behalf through the use of third party platforms or social networks. In the US, a 2014 study found that the volume of donations from fundraising campaigns generated through social media grew by over 70 percent. Since giving is both social and highly emotional, it is important to create experiences and opportunities where social ties and relationships can drive new donations.

The Final Takeaway

It would feel typical to end this with “the future of your non-profit is in your hands,” but that’s not the reality. The future of your non-profit is in the hands of your donors, in their voices, and in their stories. As Caryn Stein reminds us, “there is no more powerful way to move people to action than through a compelling story. Stories told by people are always more powerful than ones distributed by an organization.” Embrace your donors, and let them tell your story.

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