The personal philanthropy project: Inspiring Canada’s affluent to give more (Part One)

publication date: Jun 12, 2017
author/source: Michèle Benoit

Over the past 25 years our country has seen slow erosion in the relative size of its donor base, at least as measured by those claiming charitable donations on their tax returns (1). The percentage of tax filers claiming donations fell from a high of 29.5% in 1990 to 21.4% in 2014, the most recent year available. However, total donations have more than doubled over that same period with major gift donations playing an increasingly larger role.

While it seems that we have a good sense, in broad strokes through government surveys, of what motivates Canadians to give to charity – compassion, personal affinity for a cause, etc. – we lack a solid understanding of the actual triggers behind these motivations. And although we have a basic idea of why people choose to not give – they want to spend their money somewhere else; they have reservations about how their money is being spent; they don’t like how requests for donations are being made; etc. – what are the sticky ideas? It would be invaluable to better understand, as a starting point, the attitudes that precipitate giving.

And so, Imagine Canada launched a national initiative called the Personal Philanthropy Project. Aimed at individuals, the goal is to encourage affluent Canadians to be more intentional around their philanthropy and to ultimately give more to charities.

Proprietary Research Study In 2014 Imagine Canada conducted 56 in-depth phone interviews with men and women from all regions across the country between the ages of 35 to 64 who met an annual household income of at least $200,000. They were also required to have minimum investable assets of $500,000 (excluding their primary residence) and give a minimum of $500 to charity per year.

Donor Behaviour On average, these individuals donated $2,694 per year. Overwhelmingly, they perceive themselves to be “run-of-the-mill” in terms of their means, many believing that their annual charitable donations are generous and above average, despite having any benchmark comparison. Most participants considered their contributions to be significant, valued, and impactful. They see their philanthropic giving as a personal and social responsibility and something they are genuinely proud of, regardless of the amount donated. Few considered their contributions to be any kind of financial “stretch” to their personal household circumstances. Most did recognize the benefit of having a more formal, structured approach to their giving, but few indicated any desire or intent to change from their current patterns. Many did see, however, the value in understanding where they “fit in” relative to others. Such information might encourage these individuals to give more.

Patterns for Giving The majority of study participants began giving in their 20s or 30s - many stating that donating to charities was simply “a given”, being modelled after their family values and upbringing. Some were influenced early in their careers, responding to peer requests or getting involved with workplace giving programs while personal milestones such as marriage, parenthood, and health events also played a significant role. Door-to-door solicitations were commonly stated as a trigger for establishing initial giving and as a continued motivator to this day. For the majority, giving is cause-based with annual, recurring donations mostly going to a small cluster of organizations that champion one cause. Participants tended to focus their overall giving on two or three primary causes, generally representing 65% of total contributions. Very few annual patterns emerged, with donors giving “through the year” in response to need and commitments to fundraising events. A small minority reported donating in the final quarter to take advantage of annual eligible tax benefits.

No formal plan Most participants stated that they do not have a financial, budgetary, or recipient plan for their annual charitable giving. They simply keep a “mental tally” and most could not articulate how they arrive at that amount. The study confirmed that little thought is put into giving levels and very few reported any plans to increase their charitable giving over time. For these individuals, the most common giving pattern sees donations gradually increase as salaries increase (or is linked to bonuses), but quickly plateaus after a few years. For many, when an individual’s financial situation changed for the worse over time, charitable contributions decreased accordingly, often remaining at that lower, adjusted amount even if their financial circumstance later improved.

The need to dig deeper It was apparent that all participants have the ability and the wherewithal to increase their giving. And participants were not resistant to the idea of giving more! But Imagine Canada and the researchers believed new information is needed to change long-established giving patterns.

Stay tuned as Michèle Benoit shares new information and next steps for the Personal Philanthropy Project in Part 2 of this 3 part series.


Michèle Benoit is Manager of the Personal Philanthropy Project at Imagine Canada and brings her leadership experience in project management from the corporate, public, and private sectors to carry out this important national initiative. For more Project information, visit and

Like this article?  Join our mailing list for more great information!

Copyright, Hilborn Stanois Inc., © 2011-Current. All rights reserved.

Free Fundraising Newsletter
Join Our Mailing List