Why Albertans give so much money to charity (but shouldn't be too smug about it)

Albertans donate more money, per capita, than people in any other province. But to declare ourselves the most generous, based on that alone, would be uncharitable, to say the least.

Donor culture highlights how we view the role of government vs. civil society

Volunteers collect donations by cheque, cash and credit card during the 2019 CBC Calgary Food Bank drive. (Robson Fletcher/CBC)

Per person, Albertans donate more money to charity than people in any other province.

That's a title we've held for 14 consecutive years and counting, according to Statistics Canada.

At the other end of the spectrum is Quebec, which has consistently ranked dead last.

Looking at this data, there's reason for Albertans to be proud. It might even be tempting to be just a wee bit smug. But that would be uncharitable, to say the least.

To declare ourselves the most generous province would be to overlook the fact that Manitobans and British Columbians give more, proportionally, of their income. It would also overlook the different ways that societies organize themselves to support the least fortunate among them.

Something is indeed built into the Alberta culture when it comes to charitable giving. People in this province are more willing to open their wallets — wide — to support what's sometimes referred to as "civil society" — the plethora of community groups, organizations, churches, associations, foundations and individuals who work independently of government in the public sphere.

But public-opinion researchers note there is a different culture in Quebec, one where government plays a bigger role and individuals rely more on the state to deliver supports to those in need. The financial backing in this model comes through taxes that are much, much higher.

The differences are stark. Consider these numbers.

Who gives the most

Albertans donated $1.57 billion in 2017, the most recent year for which tax data is available.

That compares to $900 million In Quebec, which has twice the population.

On a per-capita basis, Alberta is well above of the national giving average, while Quebec is far below.

And it's been like this for decades.

People in Alberta, of course, have more money to give.

Incomes here remain higher than every other province and, when looking at donations as a percentage of household income, Albertans no longer come out on top.

That title has consistently belonged to Manitobans, who give the most of what they have available. Alberta used to be in second place, but in the past few years has slipped to third, behind British Columbia.

But even by this measure of charitable giving, Quebec doesn't fare any better and remains firmly in last place.

It's a different story when it comes to taxes.

No thanks, I gave at tax time

A person earning $50,000 a year can expect to pay roughly $2,000 more in provincial income tax in Quebec than they would in Alberta.

For someone making $100,000, that difference grows to nearly $6,000.

A person spending their income in Quebec will also pay an additional 9.975 per cent on their purchases to cover the provincial sales tax, which doesn't exist in Alberta.

A large chunk of all that extra tax revenue is earmarked for social services, so it's easier to make the argument in Quebec that "there's a role for government and then there's a role for the private or non-governmental sector," said David Coletto, CEO of Abacus Data, which does public opinion research across the country.

And if the government is supposed to handle something, why should you also give money to another organization to do the same thing?

It comes down to whom you trust.

Where we place our faith

While Albertans might bristle at the idea of putting too much stock in government, Coletto said Quebecers might raise an eyebrow at the level of trust some Western Canadians put in non-governmental organizations, such as churches, to take care of the poor.

"Quebec is a much more secular province than Alberta, where religion is still very important."

The same could also be said of that larger sector to which churches belong: the aforementioned "civil society."

John Santos, a data scientist with Janet Brown Opinion Reseach in Calgary, said Albertans — and Western Canadians, more broadly — tend to "really believe in the power of civil society."

"In Quebec, there's almost more of a statist view ... more of a faith in government," he said.

So while people in the West might be more willing to give to charity, they're less willing to hand money to the government. Taxes are broadly seen as something to be minimized, if not avoided.

But in Quebec, Santos said there tends to be more support for higher levels of taxation. With that comes the understanding that some of those taxes will be used to support the poor, or help immigrants learn an official language, or clear snow from the sidewalks in front of seniors' homes — all things Albertans might prefer to leave up to individuals or non-governmental groups.

So, which approach works better? That depends.

Pros and cons

Under the civil-society model, Santos said high-profile causes tend to be well supported but others can be overlooked.

"Food banks always do well. Church charities tend to do well. Things like the Boys and Girls Club do well," he said.

"But on the flip side, if you're a group on the margins or don't enjoy that same kind of status with the people who bankroll civil society, you could be on the losing side."

For instance, during the boom times back in 2014 — when Albertans' charitable giving was at or near its peak — economists at the University of Calgary found the city was "a disaster" for the very poor. Their risk of homelessness had grown, a study found, due to rising rents, a lack of investment in affordable housing and meagre growth in social assistance rates.

That same study held up Quebec City and Montreal as "unique in Canada" for becoming more affordable for the very poor since 1990. It credited the achievement to the province's generous increases to social assistance and lower housing costs at the bottom end of the rental market.

So the rugged individualism of Alberta's approach may allow civil society the freedom to direct its considerable financial means wherever it best sees fit, but can also leave larger cracks through which society's most vulnerable can slip.

Meanwhile, the enforced collectivism of Quebec's more statist approach leaves individuals with less disposable income to support the charities of their choice, but may be better suited to solving large-scale problems.

The means may be different but, ultimately, the goals are the same.

Underpinning both approaches is a singular motivation: to help those in need and build a better world for us all.


Robson Fletcher

Data Journalist

Robson Fletcher's work for CBC Calgary focuses on data, analysis and investigative journalism. He joined CBC in 2015 after spending the previous decade working as a reporter and editor at newspapers in Alberta, British Columbia and Manitoba.


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