Brian Lee CrowleyNational Philanthropy Day is a great opportunity to celebrate the social benefits that Canadian society derives from philanthropic giving. But we cannot take it for granted, write Brian Lee Crowley and Sean Speer.

By Brian Lee Crowley and Sean Speer, Nov. 15, 2016

Today is National Philanthropy Day to mark the importance of philanthropy, charity, and volunteerism in our society. It is a wonderful opportunity to think about how millions of Canadians of different means and backgrounds contribute to our country and their communities each day in the form of time, money, and passion. The only shame is that we do not spend enough time recognizing these efforts or thinking about how to support and leverage them the other 364 days each year.

The tendency to neglect the philanthropic sector in particular and the role of civil society in general can often times be most acute in Ottawa where the bureaucratic impulse can be totalizing. Social problems tend to be treated as the monopolistic purview of the state and the impact of public policy on philanthropy and civil society (think for instance the potential negative of higher marginal tax rates on charitable giving) receives virtually no attention.

The tendency to neglect the philanthropic sector in particular and the role of civil society in general can often times be most acute in Ottawa where the bureaucratic impulse can be totalizing.

The result is that we are failing to draw all that we can on the strengths of philanthropy to improve our health-care system, help vulnerable Canadians, and achieve better educational outcomes, to name just a few examples. And this does not even account for the richness of non-financial rewards that philanthropy, charity, and volunteerism bring to our communities and to us as individuals. As Adam Smith famously wrote in The Theory of Moral Sentiments:

“To feel much for others and little for ourselves; to restrain our selfishness and exercise our benevolent affections, constitute the perfection of human nature.”

Human perfection may seem like a lofty goal but surely the point is that philanthropy, giving, and volunteerism represent a public good that brings direct and indirect benefits to everyone involved, and thus it should be a national objective to nurture, sustain, and strengthen the civil society impulse in Canada.

A 2013 report on charitable giving by the Standing House Committee on Finance provides a basic primer on the state of philanthropy in Canada, the role of government policy, and what further steps that Ottawa can take to support charitable giving.

Sean SpeerThe committee’s report drew on Statistics Canada data to provide a compositional sketch of who gives, how much, and the various factors that contribute to philanthropy. The latest data show that yearly charitable donations have grown marginally in recent years but remain largely dependent on a small cohort – roughly 25 percent of the population – that is aging with those aged 65 and older representing the largest share of donors and donations.

This is consistent with research by former Statistics Canada official and Carleton University professor Paul Reed’s on Canadian civil society. He refers to a “civic core” to describe the small percentage of the population increasingly responsible for a disproportionate share of charitable giving, volunteerism, and civic participation. Reed’s research finds that only about six percent of the adult population is now responsible for between 35 and 42 percent of all civic engagement when one combines these three activities together. Some commentators thus warn of a “civic deficit” if these trends are not reversed.

What can the federal government do to encourage philanthropy in Canada? This is a critical question that the Macdonald-Laurier Institute intends to engage in the coming months.

This work will start from the premise that philanthropy represents a public good and a source of strength and that it is in the national interest (to say nothing of “the nature of human perfection”) to cultivate the conditions for it to flourish.

There is an urgency to this work. We believe that these conditions to support a strong philanthropic capacity – including entrepreneurship, wealth creation, and individual success – are increasingly under-valued by most and disdained by some. The connection between personal wealth and philanthropic giving is seemingly no longer self-evident in our public debate. The result is a collective dissonance whereby a “soak-the-rich” political message is accruing a greater resonance at precisely the moment we are asking wealthy Canadians to contribute to hospitals, universities, the arts, and several other social institutions. It is an unsustainable tension especially as the “civic core” shrinks.

Today ought to be the day that we commit to nurturing, sustaining, and strengthening Canada’s civic core.

It is imperative then that our interest in philanthropy is not time limited to National Philanthropy Day. We need to restore the idea that the risk-taking, entrepreneurial spirit that our society rewards with great wealth can achieve social and public outcomes that elude the state for financial or institutional reasons. We need to support the next generation of the “civic core” to build on Canada’s history of philanthropy and a robust civil society. And we need to create the conditions to forestall a “civic deficit” and instead to enable philanthropy to flourish and grow in Canada.

National Philanthropy Day is a great opportunity to celebrate the social benefits that Canadian society derives from philanthropic giving. But we cannot take it for granted. It is critical that we reaffirm ourselves to unleashing the giving power of Canadians and drawing on the best of civil society to address social challenges and to ultimately strengthen our country and our communities. Today ought to be the day that we commit to nurturing, sustaining, and strengthening Canada’s civic core. MLI is certainly committed to such a noble goal.

Brian Lee Crowley is the managing director and Sean Speer is a Munk senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.

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