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Why charitable giving in Canada is at a crossroads

Sharilyn Hale on the decline in donors, attitudes of younger givers and the academic study of philanthropy

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As president of Watermark Philanthropic Counsel in Toronto, Sharilyn Hale offers expertise to help her clients channel their wealth and influence for good. Her mission is simple: to help those who give, give well.

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Hale holds the designation Master Financial Advisor – Philanthropy (MFA-P), demonstrating expertise in all aspects of strategic charitable gift planning. She also helped initiate Canada’s first graduate program in Philanthropy and Nonprofit Leadership, at Carleton University in Ottawa.

With charitable giving deeply ingrained in her since childhood, Hale says she didn’t so much choose philanthropy, but rather it chose her. She sees the charitable sector as a dynamic and complex space, ripe for research and exploration, especially for family philanthropy.

Over the years she has conducted “countless” interviews with people about their motivations for giving and why philanthropy is an important part of their lives. Hale makes a strong case for delving deeper into critical thinking about the charitable sector in Canada in order to better understand how it’s changing and ultimately to make it stronger.

Why do people give?

A very common answer is because they saw it in others. They saw their parents and grandparents being generous and giving. It had an impact on them, so they carry that legacy.

What influenced your own view of philanthropy?

When I was quite young, I was the recipient of someone’s generosity. I was just so moved that someone would care enough about me to help. That was a very meaningful experience and the meaning has gotten deeper as I’ve gotten older, but I’ve never forgotten.

Another pivotal moment came when I was doing my graduate degree in philanthropy. One of our professors had us do our philanthropic autobiographies, which is an exercise I do with my client families – asking them to reflect on their earliest experiences of giving, receiving, volunteering and being the recipient of generosity. Then, to think about how that informs their view of philanthropy today. The power of that reflection was instrumental in shaping me as a professional and as a guide to others.

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There are demographic shifts happening in Canada, more wealth than ever, and the philanthropic stakes are higher.

Why do we need philanthropic advisors?

Philanthropic advising is evolving to meet the moment. There are demographic shifts happening in Canada, more wealth than ever, and the philanthropic stakes are higher, as those who are giving are giving more. Generous people and families are looking at philanthropy as a path to meaning and purpose, family legacy and succession, and the moral and leadership development of children.

Giving well is increasingly nuanced, with societal and environmental issues both complex and interconnected, and more scrutiny of those who give, how they give and to what ends. Having expert counsel can help navigate this landscape.

How has the pandemic affected philanthropy?

The pandemic has certainly had an impact. In 2020, giving in Canada dropped 10 per cent to levels not seen since 2016. Prior to COVID-19 the number of donors in Canada was declining year over year, but fortunately, those who give are giving more.

Given the last 18 months, I believe many are giving with greater awareness of isolation, mental health, the digital divide, poverty and the deep structural inequalities all laid bare by the pandemic.

Broadly, charitable giving in Canada is at a crossroads. We know from research that those in the lower income brackets actually give a greater percentage of their overall income to charity. And we know from research done by Imagine Canada that there is significant opportunity for those in the higher income level to be giving more.

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I think there’s a call to action in that research, but also a recognition that those who are giving are giving significantly.

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How has giving shifted with the younger generation?

Generally, millennials and Generation X are more issue-focused than institution-focused than prior generations. They are also more distinctive in how they give than the causes they support. They tend to have a much broader view of giving behaviour that includes but extends beyond making charitable donations – volunteerism, policy activism, crowd-funding engagement, micro-lending, social enterprise and ethical consumerism. Some have coined this the shift from charitable giving to charitable living.

This generation-specific shift certainly provides opportunity for different kinds of conversations about giving within a multi-generational family where traditional philanthropy has tended to dominate.

What do you tell the children of the very rich about giving away money?

“Kids” of the very wealthy are not a homogenous group, and may range from young children to adults in their 50s and 60s. My advice to them is not unlike that I would offer anyone who wants to give well:

  • First, be informed. Approach giving with humility and an open mind to learn over time about the issues you want to focus on but also about giving effectively.
  • Second, get involved. Volunteer, advocate, raise funds, join a board or committee. These actions connect you with organizations tackling issues you care about and give insight into their realities, challenges and beneficiaries of their work.
  • Third, find philanthropic peers. Connect with others who give and build a network you can learn from and contribute to. Other people and families have likely faced similar issues you may be facing.

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Why is it important to study philanthropy in an academic way?

I believe that practice needs to inform research, and research means to inform practice. Philanthropy is increasingly complex and nuanced in terms of how to give it away. That has intended consequences.

There isn’t enough research in Canada on philanthropy, which is one reason that motivated me to do research and my doctorate degree. Without research on the motivation, structures and approaches to philanthropy, how do we know what works and what doesn’t?

I had to go to the U.S. to do my graduate degree in philanthropy because there were no options in Canada. Years later, a number of us felt strongly that we needed a graduate level program for the future of the philanthropic sector in Canada. So we were involved in ultimately endorsing Canada’s first graduate degree in philanthropy and nonprofit leadership at Carleton University. It remains the only graduate level program in Canada and the work coming out of that program has been tremendous.

How do you view the increased criticism of philanthropy today?

There is much more critique of philanthropy now than ever before – in the U.S. and Europe but increasingly in Canada – rooted in questions around power, influence, wealth and inequality. So the critique of philanthropy can be very uncomfortable for those who give. There are also young inheritors who feel uncomfortable with their wealth, perhaps with how it was created as well as the sense of justice about why we have so much when others have so little.

It’s important for generous families to hear those critiques and to think about what that means for their own giving. They also need to be aware of the power and influence they have, because they give with every good intention to do well. A credible advisor can help inform families around those very issues.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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