11/14/2012 02:41 EST | Updated 01/14/2013 05:12 EST

Despite tough economic times, more Canadians are donating to charities

TORONTO - More Canadians are showing signs of willingness to dig deeper into their wallets for charitable causes, a survey from one of Canada's major banks suggested Wednesday.

The online poll from BMO Harris Private Banking found that 79 per cent of those surveyed had made a charitable donation at some point in the past 12 months.

The figure was up sharply from 2011 levels when just 68 per cent of respondents had made contributions.

Poll respondents also indicated they were writing larger cheques than they had in recent years. The average donation amount rose to $557 in 2012 from $487 the year before.

The news initially came as a surprise to Marvi Ricker, BMO's managing director of philanthropic services. Global economic turbulence that has kept markets in flux may seem an unlikely backdrop for a spike in charitable donations, she conceded.

But while Canadians have enjoyed comparative economic stability, Ricker said the international turmoil has served as a harbinger of things to come.

"We know we have years of austerity ahead of us," Ricker said in reference to cost-cutting measures by provincial and federal governments. "I think people are recognizing that if they want to have the quality of society that we've gotten used to, individuals are going to have to contribute more."

Cathy Barr, senior vice-president of charity watchdog Imagine Canada, said that recognition would come as a relief to the country's charitable organizations.

Charity leaders are very alarmed at the prospect of losing government funding at a time of fiscal restraint, Barr said. Finance Minister Jim Flaherty announced on Tuesday that a balanced budget is unlikely to materialize until 2016 or 2017, adding a projected deficit of $21.1 billion is likely to grow to $26 billion by next March.

Barr said many of the heads of Canada's charities predict their groups will be weaker in the short term, adding a growing number have forecasted lower revenues and staffing levels in the near future.

"Charity leaders tend to be a fairly optimistic bunch. Even at the height of the recession, they were very optimistic about the future," Barr said. "This is the first time we've really started to see a sign of waning confidence."

Numbers from the BMO survey suggest salvation is most likely to come from members of the aging baby boom generation, who Ricker said are among the most highly motivated donors.

Canadians now entering middle age in a position of relative financial security are feeling compelled to support the social causes that will be of most benefit to them in the years ahead, she said.

The survey results seemed to support Ricker's conjecture. About 60 per cent of respondents said their donations were directed towards health care and medical-related causes. Anti-poverty projects were the second most popular category, garnering 45 per cent of respondents' donations, while animal welfare initiatives came third at 30 per cent.

"I think a lot of people are beginning to realize that it is...a pleasure to be able to contribute and have an impact on things that are important to you," Ricker said. "This is the mark of the baby boom generation; they're not prepared to write blank cheques to organizations and let them figure it out.

The results marked a return to form for Canadians, Ricker said, noting the number of charitable contributors had been rising steadily from 1997 to 2007 before tapering off dramatically in the recession of 2008.

Barr agreed, citing Statistics Canada data that tracked charitable donations in 2010. That year 84 per cent of Canadians over 15 made charitable contributions, according to the Canada Survey of Giving, Volunteering and Participating. That study showed charitable donations had returned to levels established the year before the economic meltdown.

The BMO survey showed Ontarians were the most frequent and most generous donors this year, with 85 per cent of respondents contributing average donations of $778. Quebec scored last, with 72 per cent of respondents offering up contributions averaging $129, BMO said.

The online survey, administered by Polara, sampled 1,000 Canadians between Nov. 2 and 5. The polling industry's professional body, the Marketing Research and Intelligence Association, says online surveys cannot be assigned a margin of error because they do not randomly sample the population like traditional telephone polls.