By Deborah Gyapong
Canadian Catholic News
Charitable organizations in Canada have a political problem, which has resulted in less contributions and volunteers, says the president of a Christian think tank devoted to the renewal of civil society.
“A declining number of people are giving less—less time, less money, less of themselves—to their neighbours, their communities, and their country,” said Cardus president Michael Van Pelt, June 13, at a reception drawing politicians, lobbyists, and charitable organizations. “And nothing, at the moment anyway, seems to be on the horizon to change that.”
The civic core of the Canadian economy accounts for 8.5 per cent of the Canadian GDP, he noted, “more than the combined GDP of Nova Scotia, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan. It is larger than Canada's retail, automotive, and manufacturing sectors.”
Van Pelt also pointed out there are 750,000 unincorporated and faith-based organizations in Canada; 81,000 non-profit corporations; and over 80,000 registered charities.
“When we think of other pressing problems such as the environment, economic instability, income inequality, law and order, homelessness and so on, charity is often a key, though an unspoken key of the overall picture,” Van Pelt said.
He said a decade-old study showed 18 per cent of adults were responsible for 80 per cent of charitable giving. Of those adults nine per cent contributed 80 per cent of the volunteer hours and only 20 per cent “were responsible for 66 per cent of all civic participation in Canada.”
“It gets gloomier,” he said. “Social scientists Linda Graff and Paul Reed alert us to the fact that people begin to move away from volunteering at about age 55, and the drop in participation increases sharply as people reach their mid to late 60s. Do I even need to say the words ‘baby boomers’ to make my point?"
He said nothing at the moment seems to be on the horizon to change this.
Van Pelt also noted two dominant strains of thought underlie policy choices on the political scene regarding charities.
“On the right, we are dealing with essentially libertarian impulses that are framed by the preoccupations of the individual that it is hard to see charitable institutions as important to community, responsibility, and a sense of social order,” Van Pelt said.
“We witnessed another example of this in the government's recent budget with the crackdown on charities involved in political activity. Of course, we all support proper accountability in anything involving public finances.”
But he said the crackdown has gone far beyond that and instead has framed charitable agencies as abusers of the system.
“This has created a generalized suspicion around the whole concept of charity—that somehow those engaged in charitable activity are ‘getting away with something’ at public expense and at the risk of corrupting the moral health of the country,” Van Pelt said.
“Underlying this is the assumption that it is somehow ‘more conservative’ to regard charities as unnecessary, even parasitic,” he added.
Van Pelt mused the position may be “a reaction to the ethos that has dominated Canadian policy for 40 years, namely that government must do everything.”
Since the 1960s, “the left's legitimate abhorrence of the cruelties that arose from dividing Canadians in need into the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor morphed into a conviction that only the State could dispense any kind of aid neutrally."
He said charity has became more than a dirty word.
“It became the means by which power and oppression were perpetuated so that any act of giving or benevolence had, as its true intention, the perpetuation of social hierarchy for the giver by inflicting humiliation on the receiver.”
Van Pelt noted the social gospel motivations of the left have withered and charity’s connection with religion has become problematic. Religious talk “can often stop political conversation cold,” he said.
“The result is that it is left out of the discussion entirely, which is bizarre given that charity through faith-based institutions accounts for an overwhelming majority of the donations made in this country.
“There is a significant disconnect between the accepted conversation of the public square and the reality of faith inspired motivations in the majority of our charity across this land. Such is our religious amnesia, that we have forgotten the very word ‘donation’ has its roots in the concept of ‘presentation of a gift’—that is, something we give freely out of love.”
Van Pelt also expressed concerns about a corporatist approach to charity. “To be more provocative: will we allow charity to blend into the wallpaper of corporatism that characterizes our age?”
He also questioned the merging of governments and charitable institutions.
“What happens to charities when government revenues are such a large part of their budgets that charitable revenues are not material to their audited statement? What happens to charities when reliance on government revenues replaces the intentional building of natural communities of support around these charities?”
“It is too easy to dismiss the relationship but also too easy to depend on it,” he said.
Van Pelt noted that when he takes out the garbage he and all his neighbors have sorted it into various recycling bins and a composter. This has been the result of public education campaigns “If we can do it with garbage, we can do it with charity.”