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United Way sees firsthand gap between donations and community need

The first year of the pandemic was a boon for charitable giving, but the pace has slowed even as we head into the second holiday season under the cloud of COVID-19.

The online donation platform CanadaHelps reports giving was up 6.9 per cent for the year as of last month, but that’s down significantly from the 116 per cent jump seen in 2020.

It’s the same story for the United Way Waterloo Region Communities, which has seen an uptick in individual giving even as traditional workplace donations have fallen off due to the pandemic.

Where quarterly disbursements range between $750,000 and $840,000, United Way has demands for triple that amount, says CEO Joan Fisk, pointing to a growing homelessness problem in particular.

“The need has increased so dramatically … particularly in the mental health space. The context of precarious housing, eviction notices – we need to help support them, so that’s what we do. We raise money and we give it out and we don’t hold it as a community foundation – it’s not the model of the United Way. The United Way is a community chest, really, there for the needs in the community,” she said, noting the organization has stepped up the frequency of its disbursements due to the increased demand and crisis situation.

The reason some donations may be slowing down could be due to donor fatigue, Fisk suggested. Many people are getting asked from so many different charities it can feel confusing to know if they are picking the right one.

“Donations have just sort of ticked up slowly over the last 18 months, but the last three months have been a bit more robust. We’ve seen a little bit more of an uptake.”

The 2021 Generosity Index compiled by the Fraser Institute shows charitable giving has been waning for the past two decades. The number of Canadians donating to charity, as a percentage of all tax filers, is at the lowest point in the past 20 years.

“The holiday season is a time to reflect on charitable giving, and the data shows Canadians are consistently less charitable every year, which means charities face greater challenges to secure resources to help those in need,” said Jake Fuss, senior policy analyst with the Fraser Institute and co-author of Generosity in Canada: The 2021 Generosity Index, in a release.

The study also finds that the total amount donated by Canadians during the 2019 tax year – just 0.53 per cent of income – is the second lowest amount since at least 2000. During that period, Canadians’ generosity peaked at 0.72 per cent in 2006, before declining in subsequent years.

Nationally, the percentage of Canadian tax filers donating to charity has fallen from 25.5 per cent to 19 per cent over that same 20-year period, the study found.

The local United Way agency has seen a decrease in workplace funding but an increase in individual annual donation.

“Giving is an important piece of feeling a part of the community. That’s the opportunity that United Way gives people that your money well spent going to so many places, because we are the query that we know where the big hotspots are. We get that information. We collect the data, we know where we can really help them make the most difference,” said Fisk.

The organization is aiming to raise $7 million through its 2021-2022 quarterly fund.

“The need is there. I thought I was realistic in setting that kind of a goal. Particularly when I look at our community against other communities where their population is about the same or maybe even a little less or more. We sit as Waterloo Region nine out of 14. Just not great. Employees are younger, and they don’t work in the traditional model of the United Way, which was work at a factory, we get a little bit from your paycheque and it was a paper form. Well, that’s gone. And now we hope that people that have a little bit extra to give $10 to $20 a week or a month will make a difference because we know at the end of the day, it’s an efficient, easy way to give,” she said.

“If you donate to our holiday giving campaign right now, it will be matched dollar for dollar. One dollar equals two, and that will go a long way for us to help the community where we see the most need and this particular fund is around preventing homelessness, eviction.”

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