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This article was published 16/9/2011 (3011 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Despite the recent outpouring of support for east Africa, giving to charity in Canada is in trouble.
Figures released by Statistics Canada show that the number of tax filers reporting a donation is at a 30-year low, with only 23.1 per cent of taxpayers claiming a deduction for giving to charity in 2009, down from 24.1 per cent in 2008.
In dollar terms, total donations dropped to $7.75 billion in 2009 from $8.19 billion in 2008 and $8.65 billion in 2007.
According to David Lasby, senior research associate at Imagine Canada, this drop "is virtually without precedent" and "should be grounds for considerable concern."
Why is giving going down?
Some suggest it's because of the tough economic times; when people are worried about the future, they may give less. But that doesn't square with the historical record. According to Imagine Canada, giving increased during each of the last four recessions between 1984 and 2006.
The situation was similar in the U.S., where giving rose during times of economic contraction.
Others say it's because there are so many charities vying for donations and so many fundraising messages — people don't know who to give to, so they don't give anything. But there have always been lots of worthy causes, and fundraising is not a new practice.
So if it isn't the recession, or the number of charities and needs, then what's causing the drop in giving?
Owen Charters thinks he knows — and the answer might surprise some people.
"I think one of the significant reasons for the drop is that Canadians aren't going to religious services as much as they used to," says Charters, CEO of CanadaHelps, an online foundation that helps charities raise money.
"It's interesting to me that the drop in giving has paralleled the drop in attendance at religious services."
What's the connection between giving and religion? "Places of worship are one of the main places people learn about giving," he says. "At worship services people are reminded to be thankful for the blessings they receive and to be generous to others."
In addition, people who go to religious services are regularly reminded of their "sense of duty and obligation to others, especially to those who are less fortunate," he says.
Short of a miracle, people aren't going to flock back to church, synagogue, temple, mosque or gurdwara. So what are charities — and religious groups — to do? Charters thinks they will have to find new ways to build community.
"Many people are more likely to feel bonded through a cause," he says. "For them, the idea of community has changed. It isn't a matter of a place to meet, or a group to meet with, but an idea to gather around. Community travels with them, wherever they are. We need to figure out how to appeal to those people."
For Charters, one important way to do this is through social media.
"Through social media, people can feel connected, no matter where they are," he says. "Social media's tentacles reach out everywhere, including places we could never guess or imagine. These tentacles become part of the glue that holds people together."
But social media isn't like the old way of communicating, where non-profits or religious groups controlled the message.
"We don't control it — the users do," he says. "They connect on their own terms, and when and where they want, not when and where we want... Social media is best understood as an amplifier. We can start a message, but others will move it along."
Social media, he ways, works best when it's "not coming from the paid mouthpiece at the organization, but from a friend. It's more trustworthy. It's me telling you my story of why I am involved with a charity, or why I believe in a cause."
For Charters, the best way to use social media is by telling compelling stories.
"We have lots of new ways for people to communicate today, but one thing hasn't changed — people are still moved by real stories of real people," he says. "Telling stories is still the best way to communicate with givers."
Charters will be in Winnipeg Oct. 14 at Canadian Mennonite University for Going Barefoot III, a conference for church and other non-profit communicators and fundraisers. The theme of the one-day event, which also features Bill Roberts, president and CEO of Vision TV, is Everything Old is New Again: Communication and Fundraising in the Digital World. For more information about Going Barefoot, visit www.mennonitechurch.ca
John Longhurst has been writing for Winnipeg's faith pages since 2003. He also writes for Religion News Service in the U.S., and blogs about the media, marketing and communications at Making the News.