Charitable Questions

I received a phone call a few days ago as I was getting ready to go to work. Like a lot of calls I get this time of year, it was a woman calling from a charity. I can’t remember what it was – childhood leukemia maybe – but as she was in the midst of telling me about their poster child for this year’s campaign, I cut her off. I said look, you’re wasting your breath, I won’t be giving. “Not even a small donation?” she asked. Nope, I said, rushing to get off the phone. As I was hanging up, the cliche making me cringe even before I’d formed the sentence, I said “I have another charity I give to.”

Which is true enough. Actually I have two charities I donate to, in monthly installments charged automatically to my credit card. It isn’t a huge amount though, and I could easily afford to give more, either to the chosen two, or even to one of the charities that comes a-ringing at Christmas time.

The amount I give is, roughly, about 0.75% of my before-tax income. Which is to say, Not Much. But in many ways, I’m a typical Canadian. According to the Fraser Institute’s latest study comparing generosity in Canada and the US, 24.0 percent of Canadians give to charity each year, and we give, on aggregate, 0.73 percent of our personal income.

The figures vary considerably by province. Manitobans are the biggest givers on both scores (27.3/1.02) followed by Saskatchewan (25.7/0.86) and Ontario (25.7/0.84). Quebecers (21.9/0.33) give the least.

Like most of what it publishes, the Fraser Institute is interested here in making Canada look bad compared to the US, so what analysis there is in the study consists mainly of pointing out how poor our showing is compared to Americans. And it’s true, we are bad givers compared to Americans, though there are a lot of complications, caveats and other factors at work in making cross-border comparisons (here’s a not-bad quick pass at some of the issues.)

But back to me.

In theory, I’d like to give more to charity, and I could probably double my donation level without it making much of an impact on my finances. Heck, to pay for it all I’d have to do is stop side-swiping the wall in the parking garage twice a year. So why don’t I? Why was I in such a rush to just get this woman off the phone, as if she was just another telemarketer bugging me in the privacy of my own home?

A big part of the reason is that I’m not part of a church or similar community of giving, so there’s no external pressure. Another is that I’m not rich, so I don’t get into these virtuous cycles of one-upmanship where rich people outbid one another to see who can give the most to a hospital or opera hall.

But apart from laziness, probably the biggest reason I don’t give much is classic free riderism. I don’t really see the marginal benefit from my donations. The organizations I give to will keep doing what they do without me, and I don’t pretend that what I give helps them do what they do much better than they already do. And so I give enough to maintain a certain level of inner credibility (so I’m not ashamed) but I don’t give enough to consider myself a giving sort of guy (so I’m not proud).

Here, then, are some questions for the audience. Do you give? If so, why? Is it to a charity that is close to you in some way, or is it a more general, United Way-style of giving? Are there some forms of giving that give more immediate sense of reward or accomplishment (i.e. which are more obviously effective) and which therefore incline you to give more? Do you spread your giving out, or focus it? Do you give throughout the year, or on special occasions such as Christmas?

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