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Charitable Giving Can't Wait Until Disaster Strikes

Do we want to only wait to give when there is a big problem? It's time to take a look in the mirror and ask ourselves what kind of Canada we want to be.

07/07/2017 16:47 EDT | Updated 07/07/2017 16:49 EDT

People give fast and big when there is a tragedy. After the terrible Grenfell Tower fire, U.K. charities raised over £11M. Gifts have poured in from all kinds of places. Simon Cowell, who is better known for being cranky than kind, quickly developed a charity CD, "Bridge over Troubled Water," with dozens of artists donating their time and talent to support the cause.

NIKLAS HALLE'N via Getty Images
Donations left for those affected by the June 14 fire at the Grenfell Tower block are pictured outside a church in Kensington, west London, on June 17, 2017, following the June 14 fire at the residential building.

Last year, Canada saw a similar spike in giving when $165M was raised by the Canadian Red Cross to help the victims of the Fort McMurray wildfire. This kindness is important. Unfortunately, research shows Canadian giving overall is going down. Using data from Statistics Canada, philanthropy consulting company KCI notes that the percentage of Canadians giving to charity has declined since 2004 from 85% to 82 per cent. This three per cent doesn't sound like much until you realize this is a loss of about 800,000 donors.

There is a place where individual giving was up a lot in 2016. And it wasn't due to fire, flood or other natural disaster. According to Giving USA, giving by individuals increased nearly four per cent in 2016. This growth in giving by people is in sharp contrast to the three-per-cent overall trend of decline in Canadian donors.

Once the problem has moved out of the headlines, we seem to go back to our old ways.

Canada and the U.S. are the same in many ways including generosity. So, it is worth asking why there is a difference between Canada and the U.S. in giving? NonProfit Quarterly notes that the political uncertainty caused by the U.S. election appears to have led to the kind of giving that happens when there is a natural disaster. Giving in the U.S. grew in every single area of charity from arts to environment to health.

The news about the increase in U.S. giving is both encouraging and discouraging. It is hopeful because it suggests that people step in when they feel that government is not helping build a strong society. But the American news is also very sad because it suggests that we humans only increase our giving when there is trouble. Once the problem has moved out of the headlines, we seem to go back to our old ways.

COLE BURSTON via Getty Images
A truck with donations arrives at Wandering River, Alta. after raging forest fires forced more than 80,000 from their homes in Fort McMurray.

To be fair, charity leaders have been trying to get Canadians to give more. Giving Tuesday works to urge Canadians to give more in December during the holiday season. Canada Helps sponsors many great campaigns including the recent Great Canadian Giving Challenge to get more Canadians to give over the summer. And Imagine Canada's Personal Philanthropy Project is a big effort to grow giving by wealthy Canadians. Yet, research shows us that individual giving is shrinking here.

This year Canada is looking back and looking forward. If the charities that directly help our most vulnerable neighbours, inspire us through art, work for the environment, care for animals, heal the sick and educate kids need money every year, why do we only give more when there is a disaster?

Do we want to only wait to give when there is a big problem? It's time to take a hard look in the mirror and ask ourselves what kind of Canada do we want to be.

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Fort McMurray Fire Aftermath (May 2016)