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The gift that is giving

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Manitobans are more inclined to support registered charities than people of any other Canadian province. This was true in 2011, the most recent year for which the tax returns have been reviewed, and it has been true since the middle of the 1990s.

Statistics Canada's study of 2011 tax returns, published in February, shows that 25.9 per cent of the tax returns from Manitobans reported a charitable donation. No other province showed a higher donor rate. The national average was 23 per cent. The next highest province was Saskatchewan, at 25.0 per cent.

The differences among provinces are slight. The remarkable thing is Manitoba's persistence at the head of the parade. In each of the last 20 years, Manitoba has been the givingest province, by this measure, once tied with Prince Edward Island. Other provinces lead in amounts of donations, but no other province has such a large proportion of donors among its people, year after year.

The pool of registered-charity donors in Canada is slowly shrinking, but the donors increase their giving each year -- so much so that total giving has risen even as the number of givers declines. In 1994, 27 per cent of taxfilers reported donations, the same percentage as in 1984, and they gave $3.39 billion. By 2011, the pool of givers had shrunk to 23 per cent of taxfilers, but they gave $8.47 billion. Even allowing for inflation, that was an impressive increase in charitable support by the giving minority.

Manitoba's donor pool has been shrinking in step with the rest of the country. Manitoba's donor rate stood at 31 per cent of taxfilers in 1994. That rate has slipped a little bit each year since then, reaching 25.9 per cent in 2011.

Charitable donation is a life-giving strand of Canada's social fabric, sustaining churches, medical research, social services, health services, education and overseas development work. It provides an outlet for the wish many people have to support causes close to their hearts. It provides support for good works that cannot survive either by sale of goods and services or by government subsidy. Alms-giving is an ancient practice, commended by all major religions, though tax-supported health, education and income support programs have shifted the significance of charitable giving in advanced societies such as Canada.

Plenty of charitable giving in Canada is never reported on tax returns. Money collected at Salvation Army kettles in the shopping malls at Christmas or at store check out counters, amounts donated in spontaneous fundraising among co-workers in aid of a colleague, coins offered to panhandlers -- all these generate no receipts and leave no trace in the income tax reports.

Statistics Canada interviews thousands of Canadians every few years along with the Labour Force Survey to find out how much people give and what causes they support. This Canada Survey of Giving, Volunteering and Participating is vulnerable to error since respondents can say they gave even when they did not or can exaggerate the amount. It has the advantage, however, of covering a great deal of charitable effort that does not qualify for tax deduction.

The first such Canada Survey, conducted in 1997, showed that 80 per cent of Canadians had given to a charity or a non-profit organization in the past 12 months, giving a total of $4.5 billion. The latest survey, published a year ago and reporting on 2010, shows that the donor rate had risen to 84 per cent and the total amount given had risen to $10.6 billion.

From these results, it seems that the pool of Canadians willing to give is far larger than the 25 per cent who report charitable donations on their tax returns. It seems also that the proportion willing to give has stayed steady or increased while the pool of official givers to registered charities has declined. The registered charities are knocking themselves out hiring professional fundraisers and inventing new ways to solicit. They are harvesting more and more from the shrinking field they cultivate, but there still is a huge pool of potential givers out there, waiting to help.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 18, 2013 A8

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