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Leaning into generosity in times of great challenge

Countless donors chose philanthropy when health-care organizations needed it most
Dr. Wilfred Wong and his wife Amy donated $100,000 to Royal Columbian Hospital Foundation last year | RCHF

This column was originally published in BIV Magazine's Philanthropy issue.

When I was a younger man with stronger knees, I was a decent skier, despite living in the flatlands of Saskatchewan.

Every so often, I traded wheat fields for mountains and headed west to Whistler Blackcomb, eager to test my skills and nerve. Eventually I believed I had the ability (or foolishness) to take on the challenge of Saudan Couloir, a straight down double-black diamond run described by Condé Nast Traveller in 2014 as one of the nine most terrifying ski slopes in the world. 

As I stood at the top of the run, trying to get up my nerve, I received this advice. Because my body would be under extreme stress, my fight or flight instincts would kick in. If I let ‘flight’ take over, I would retreat from the moment – I would lean back on my skis, lose control and the mountain would toss me around as it pleased. If I chose to ‘fight,’ I had to lean forward and embrace the moment in order to navigate the challenge. 

When the fight or flight instinct kicks in during times of societal crisis, philanthropic support often increases as people and business choose to lean into the challenge rather than retreat inward. However, in their 2022 Increased generosity under COVID-19 threat study, researchers Ariel Fridman, Rachel Gershon and Ayelet Gneezy observed that, “in the face of crises – wars, pandemics and natural disasters – both increased selfishness and increased generosity may emerge.”

During 2020, selfish actions abounded – a roll of toilet paper became harder to find than your baggage at YYZ. But the researchers also observed an increase in generosity in areas with significant threat of COVID. Comparing giving in U.S. counties from early 2019 with early 2020, Fridman, Gershon and Gneezy reported that giving remained steady in areas with less threat of COVID, while, in areas under greater threat, donations increased 30 per cent year over year. In Canada, we saw an increase of nearly three per cent in donations claimed on Canadian tax returns in 2020. 

Not surprisingly, health and social service organizations saw a shift to increased support for their work during this time. A less predictable shift – one that cannot be quantified on tax returns – was generosity in the form of the direct support people gave to friends, local businesses and members of their community. 

At Royal Columbian Hospital Foundation, we saw a tremendous number of people who wanted to care for our caregivers. With this new focus, donors funded meals for staff, accommodation for health-care providers who could not go home to their families and the medical equipment needed to care for patients. Our donors chose to lean into generosity.

As for my journey down the Couloir, it was like a scene from a Warren Miller movie. I went over the edge in my bright green and pink ski suit, leaning in, exhilarated. But as thrilling as that was, it in no way matched the outpouring of support people gave to health care, and each other, during this critical time of need.

Jeff Norris is president and CEO of Royal Columbian Hospital Foundation. 

This column was originally published in BIV Magazine's Philanthropy issueCheck out BIV’s full digital magazine archive here.