Milton FriesenStatistics Canada’s Charitable Giving by Individuals report is an important look at charitable acts in this nation.

The notion of charity has long been associated with sacrificing oneself for the sake of others. It is an antidote to selfish absorption, careless distraction and mindless accumulation. It is a response of gratitude; reflecting that however little we have, it can actually grow when shared with another.

This is certainly true of Canadians, but not of all of us equally. Charitable giving at an individual level turns out to be lumpy.

There are many angles to consider in the report, which was written by Martin Turcotte. Reading between the lines, it appears that the lone personal charitable impulse may be rare. The report is about individual giving but it shows that individual is not solitary. Giving to help others is, it would seem, a group project even when we measure it with solitary means. The report suggests there is a great deal of “we” involved in individual giving. This unveils a few things about the charitable giving of Canadians.

First, charitable donation has a context – most significantly, that of religious worship. While an increasing number of Canadians are unfamiliar with what a worship context is, that act of gathering, praying, reading, listening, sharing, volunteering and reflecting on the meaning and purpose of life translates into actual care for other people. Religious settings are very important for charitable giving and generate a huge amount of significant community outreach.

Thin caricatures of religion that show up in popular TV and media suggest that it is outmoded, flaky or outright harmful. It is often presented as embarrassingly out of step with an entertainment-saturated and technologically-superior culture.

However, according to the report, if religious communities are an impractical, otherworldly abstraction, this country needs more of it. In fact, we depend on religious communities (even if we aren’t part of one) to sustain many aspects of our collective quality of life.

The report also suggests that charitable donation has a physical location, places that are part of the fabric of our communities. People give to them, in them and for them. Most of them may not be impressive on their own, but there are a lot of them and a lot of people collectively engage in them. Next time you drive past a synagogue, mosque or church, imagine that it is a peculiar engine that converts, in a very profound way, the compassion of Canadians into an outpouring of billions of dollars of goodwill.

Charitable donation has a critical role in our communities. A tremendous amount of the money donated in Canada goes toward highly local charitable work. It’s not that we don’t help out in other settings – we gave $1.2 billion to international projects in 2013. It is clear, however, that the vast majority of our financial sharing is invested where we live. Charitable giving is a neighbourhood, village, town or city activity. Even where national organizations are supported, the pillars and posts of those cross-country projects are firmly planted in local soil.

Research on the replacement cost for services provided by neighbourhood faith communities suggests that such local groups generate a common good contribution roughly five times greater than their annual budget – year after year, decade after decade. The money contributed, then, is only a small part of the story.

Research that investigates these often untracked and untold realities is long overdue. If you don’t examine the context, location and community-driven nature of individual charitable giving, the social challenges we face will increase while the supply of social ingenuity to meet them decreases. Minding that gap will be critical to the well-being of Canadians in the immediate and long-term future.

Canada’s primary donors (those in the top 10 percent) are getting older (51 percent are over 55 years old). They are typically religious and gave 30 percent more in 2013 than they did in 2004.

As we consider what the charitable landscape will look like in coming decades, it is vital to pay attention to the communities of faith that develop, grow and sustain significant charitable works.

The report suggests that we would do well not only to think about how to encourage more giving, but to do more to understand the context and communities of charitable Canadians.

Milton Friesen is the program director of Social Cities at Cardus, a think tank dedicated to the renewal of North American social architecture.

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