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Philanthropy in free fall

By David Wilson

The word “philanthropy” derives from the Latin term philanthropia, itself derived from a Greek expression meaning, roughly, “love of humanity.” What, then, are we to make of the fact that modern philanthropy is in sharp decline?

Last fall, several hundred Canadian movers and shakers gathered in a Toronto concert hall for a series of short talks on philanthropy put on by the Walrus Foundation, publishers of the Walrus magazine. Among the speakers was Gordon Floyd, co-editor of the Philanthropist, a quarterly journal. Until his recent retirement, Floyd held numerous senior positions in the Canadian charitable sector. He knows his way around the philanthropy waterfront.

The picture he painted was not pretty. The number of Canadians who donate to charitable causes has dropped by a staggering 24 percent since 1990. Until 2011, the overall dollar value of their donations increased — they made bigger gifts — but since then, the growth has stopped.

Moreover, statistics show that people are increasingly motivated to donate because they have a personal stake in the cause they’re supporting, not for altruistic reasons. Even more alarming — about 25 percent of donors admit they do it mainly for the tax deduction. Declared Floyd, “It would be fair to say that their motivation for giving away their money is greed.” Many in the audience shifted uncomfortably in their seats.

What’s happened to old-fashioned “love of humanity”? To get a complete answer, Floyd said, you need to address another question: “What’s happened to religion?” Studies have shown that people who practise religion regularly tend to donate at a much higher level than people who don’t. According to Statistics Canada, it’s because people of faith “often have stronger pro-social and altruistic values, which motivate them to give more of their time and money to others.” And their generosity is not limited to the places where they worship — they support a wide range of other causes that reflect their values. The problem for philanthropy is that there are fewer and fewer of these people all the time.

Just as religious practice is on the wane, Floyd observed, society is becoming more and more insular. The rich are increasingly distant from the poor. Instead of knitting stronger social bonds, new technologies encourage people to organize into exclusive clusters. Public discourse is adversarial, politics divisive.

Floyd isn’t suggesting that a mass return to the pews is a cure-all for philanthropy’s woes. But he’s convinced the problem goes deeper than a lack of money; at its root is a lack of community. “Our ‘love of humanity’ cannot thrive,” he stated, “without a strong sense of community, of solidarity, of empathy with our fellow travellers.”

A couple of generations ago, churches were leaders in the business of fostering community. It’s unlikely they’ll ever enjoy that stature again. But it doesn’t mean they have to get out of the business altogether. If anything, the erosion of community that Floyd describes should be a catalyst for churches to reinvent themselves in the context of today’s reality — not as the big group on the block, but as partners in new, creative community-building alliances.

Easier said than done, especially when you’re struggling just to pay the heating bill. But in many places, churches remain the last, best hope for re-establishing and sustaining “communal bonds in this secular age,” as Floyd put it. Community looks different today than it did in the past, and it will look radically different in the future. So the ways in which churches cultivate community have to change as well. But the need for community as a place where philanthropy — love of humanity — flourishes: that’s timeless. 

Author's photo
David Wilson is the editor-publisher of The Observer.
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