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High costs of living curb donors’ ability to donate to local non-profits

Nearly one in five in B.C. are using non-profit services to meet their basic needs
Stacy Ashton, executive director of Crisis Intervention & Suicide Prevention Centre of BC, said personal donations to the organization have dropped to below pre-pandemic levels | Chung Chow

The surging cost of living has put more British Columbians in line for services offered by B.C. charities and non-profits, and at the same time curbed donors’ ability to give, a trend described as “really alarming” by the organizations that spoke to BIV.

According to a survey released earlier this month by the online donation and fundraising platform CanadaHelps, 17 per cent of B.C. respondents say they are currently using charitable services to meet their essential needs, and nearly two out of five (49 per cent) of them required charitable services for the first time.

The rising cost of living was cited as the main reason why respondents needed to access charitable services (72 per cent), followed by lost employment or income (48 per cent), caregiver support (30 per cent) and mental health issues (23 per cent).

“It’s really alarming right now in terms of the number of Canadians that are turning to charities that are providing those essential services.… It really speaks to the challenges that many Canadians are facing right now when it comes to their finances,” said Nicole Danesi, a spokesperson for CanadaHelps.

The survey also showed that more than a quarter of respondents (26 per cent) expected to need charitable services within the next six months.

Despite this higher demand, 17 per cent of B.C. respondents said they would donate less to charities this year than they did last year. This was four points higher than the percentage of respondents who said they would donate more (13 per cent).

“If individuals do not get that support from essential charitable services, the consequence is really dire,” said Danesi.

“It means that children will go to bed hungry, seniors will not get the support that they need, single parents will have to get really creative, unfortunately, or have to go without, in order to support their children and themselves as well.”

Financial constraints limit donors’ ability to give

The Vancouver-based charity Crisis Intervention & Suicide Prevention Centre of BC is one organization that is grappling with fewer donations.

“Donations for us went up during COVID-19, and now we’re seeing the same loss in donations that other organizations are reporting,” said Stacy Ashton, executive director of Crisis Intervention & Suicide Prevention Centre of BC.

Individual donations to the organization rose by 27 per cent during the first year of the pandemic in 2020, and then fell by 10 per cent the following year. In 2022, donations fell by an additional 27 per cent, which put gifts that year 10 per cent below their pre-COVID level.

Donations to CanadaHelps also started to decline in March 2021 after a surge in donations in 2020. They remained below the pre-pandemic level throughout 2022 and hit an all-time low in November 2022, according to the organization’s 2023 Giving Report.

Ashton called it a “post-COVID funding depression” and attributed it to higher costs of living and more competition for disposable income.

“During COVID-19, for a lot of people, life just wasn’t as expensive. There weren’t as many things to do or spend money on, people were not traveling.… And people were worried about other people who were isolated and lonely and needing support,” she said.

“What we’re finding on the lines is more and more people are reporting financial distress as one of the causes of crisis, so with that we would expect to see with less money available for donations,” Ashton said.

She added that this means organizations like hers will rely more on government funding and corporate donations.

“We’re able to weather this downturn in donations in our overall budget, but of course there’s always more we could be doing and having an unrestricted source of support from our donors to help us,” said Ashton.

For charities that may not have an extra source of revenue, a potentially wider gap between supply and demand means those in need may not get the support they require.

“We understand that some Canadians are not in a position to give but for those that are financially stable and have that extra tools to give, we’re really hoping that these numbers paint a picture in terms of how Canadians overall are faring and the extra support that really need at this time,” she said.

Giving participation rate falling for decades

Even before the pandemic, the percentage of Canadians donating to charities had fallen significantly from the percentage who gave one or two decades ago, according to the 30 Years of Giving in Canada report by Imagine Canada and Rideau Hall Foundation.

The giving participation rate dropped in all wealth groups from 23.4 per cent in 2010 to 18.4 per cent in 2020. And back in 1990, the giving rate was even higher at 29.5 per cent.

“While there may be many reasons, it raises concern that our values towards giving and caring for our communities may be changing,” reads CanadaHelps’ 2023 Giving Report.

Meanwhile, the need for donations is higher than it’s ever been, according to John Davies, a B.C.-based partner and senior consultant with Global Philanthropic.

“One of the biggest trends is that the world we live in right now is becoming more demanding and reliant on philanthropy. The need gets greater every year,” said Davies, who has worked in fundraising for 35 years.

Smaller charitable organizations may find it more challenging than bigger ones to raise funds, he said, adding that talent acquisition has always been a challenge in the industry.

“It’s a noble career … but not a personal profession for everybody, because not everybody feels comfortable in asking for money all the time – that’s what it’s all about. You have to have a thick skin and you have to believe there’s more money available today than there ever has [been] in history,” said Davies.

Many B.C. charities are currently operating with fewer volunteers, as many left during the pandemic and did not return, according to Danesi.

“Staff burnout is a really serious issue right now. Close to 60 per cent of charities reported that they’ve had the same number of paid staff working despite heightened service demands. So that is really challenging,” she said.

Ashton said the Crisis Intervention & Suicide Prevention Centre of BC has moved away from event-based fundraising, which collapsed during the pandemic. Now, 90 per cent their funds are raised online.

“What we’re finding is the most effective is telling the story of where we are and where we want to be, and getting that out in the press, on social media, and giving people opportunities to be a part of that by donating their money,” she said. 

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