Charities scramble to attract younger generation as their donor base ages

Many charitable organizations are coming up with strategies to attract new supporters as they see their donor base aging and a younger generation that appears to not have embraced charitable giving to the same extent as their parents and grandparents.

30% of donor base could be lost as donors age, younger generations fail to pick up where parents left off

Bayan Yammout is a teacher at Broadlands Public School, a Toronto-area elementary school, and an ambassador for UNICEF Canada. She leads a Global Citizens Club, trying to teach these Grade 5 students about philanthropy. (Ed Middleton/CBC News )

Bayan Yammout is leading her Grade 5 Global Citizen Club at Broadlands Public School in Toronto through some questions about why 58 million children around the world are not in school.

"The children of South Sudan we just met, they mentioned going to school is like a dream," Yammout said. "What are some of the challenges that are preventing them from going to school?"

"It's a long way to school, and there might be people catching you and trying to shoot guns," one student offered.

"They don't have washrooms, and so it's hard for girls so they don't go to school when they start puberty," another added.

"Very right – it's hard to go to school without a washroom," Yammout said.

Yammout was born in Beirut during the Lebanese civil war of 1975-90. She spent 17 years living in a war zone and witnessed firsthand what it means to be a child impacted by conflict – hiding in bomb shelters, searching for water, missing school and losing friends and family members.

She grew up seeing her parents helping others by distributing UNICEF emergency supplies in shelters, providing education to children, transporting injured people to hospital, and risking their lives to help others.

Yammout is originally from Lebanon and returns there every year to volunteer at informal refugee settlements and refugee camps. Here, children made a sign to thank her students in the Global Citizens Club for their gift. (Bayan Yammout/UNICEF Canada)

Yammout left Lebanon in 1997 and later moved to Canada with her husband. Today, she's a teacher and an ambassador for UNICEF Canada.

It's that role and her childhood experience that helped convince her that it's important to talk to children about social justice from an early age.

"You'll be able to turn this empathy and compassion into action, and action means change," she said.

It's a focus many charitable organizations have right now as they see their donor base aging and a younger generation that appears to not have embraced charitable giving to the same extent as their parents and grandparents.

An already stressed fundraising system

As older Canadians will their wealth to middle-aged kids, those adult children are not passing that money on to charity but instead using it to pay down debt or spend it on themselves, said Bruce MacDonald, the CEO of Imagine Canada, a national umbrella organization for charities and non-profit organizations.

Currently, donors over age 50 account for 75 per cent of all individual charitable gifts, totalling $4.3 billion. The proportion of younger donors (those under 40) has fallen from almost 42 per cent of the donor base in 1985 to 22 per cent in 2014, according to a report by Imagine Canada.

"If that doesn't translate to giving, that will put significant financial stress on an already stressed charitable fundraising system," MacDonald said.

Charities expect to lose about 30 per cent of their donations this way, he said.

A separate report by Canada Helps, a platform for donating and fundraising online, found older Canadians not only give the most, they are the only group that increased the amount of their gifts in the past decade.

In 2015, there were 31 per cent more tax filers in the 25-54 cohort than the older age group, but their donations decreased nearly three per cent per year.

Faced with these realities, charities are working hard to attract younger donors.

Can't take donors for granted

UNICEF Canada has done away with the collection boxes kids once carried at Halloween and is now focusing on educating children like those in Yammout's Grade 5 Global Citizen Club.

"One of our benefits at UNICEF is if we can get to kids, it's kids raising money for kids," said Rowena Pinto, chief program officer for UNICEF Canada.

Another charity, the Mennonite Central Committee, recently sent out surveys to its supporters to determine what causes they would like to support.

Natalie Gulenchyn, 82, has been volunteering at and supporting the Mennonite Central Committee for more years than she can remember. (Karen Pauls/CBC News)

It asked about donors' views on administrative costs, local versus international work and connections to a church or religious community. Survey participants were asked to rate some of MCC's projects, which include advocacy around poverty reduction, non-violence and justice and reconciliation.

"The shift we're going to have to make is how do we creatively engage a demographic that we haven't necessarily had to approach over our 100-year history?" said Scott Campbell, director of communications and donor relations for MCC Canada.

"We can't take for granted the support of donors over the next 10, 20, 30 or 50 years. We'll have to be clear about our message and what value we bring to our donors."

As she stuffs calendars into envelopes in MCC Canada's headquarters in Winnipeg, 82-year-old volunteer Natalie Gulenchyn explains why she donates her time and money to support its work.

"The world has shrunken to the point where your neighbour is in India or Pakistan or Syria. ... There's no more long distance," she said.

Gulenchyn's eyes filled with tears when she was asked what it would take to attract younger people to MCC's mission.

"I wish there was a magic word or number or something that would draw them in, but we just do what we can, hoping they will see the good in what we do here," she said.

Donate at the movies

Charities are getting creative when it comes to their efforts to attract younger donors.

Like many other charities, World Vision also has a gift catalogue and online shop that sells not only products made in developing nations but also 'survival' items such as water filters and crop seeds for farmers. A popular item is a goat, says Elias Hadaya, World Vision Canada’s vice-president of customer experience. (Oliver Walters/CBC News)

World Vision Canada's child sponsorship program is still attracting baby boomers, but the organization recently started taking its message to movie theatres.

An interactive game set up in the lobby of several Cineplex theatres provides information about World Vision's work, then invites participants to immediately donate.

"We need to reach them when they're available. It's on their terms," said Elias Hadaya, World Vision Canada's vice-president of customer experience.

World Vision has done focus groups and research with young people in an effort to learn about their passions and how that knowledge can translate to action.

Like many other charities, World Vision also has a gift catalogue and online shop that sells not only products made in developing nations, but "survival" items such as goats, water filters and crop seeds for farmers.

'All the younger people are broke'

But translating passion to action is a challenge as today's young people face student debt and the high cost of living, without always having reliable, consistent paycheques.

"It's hard to be a monthly mission-based donor when you're going from contract to contract, and you actually don't know where your revenue is coming from," said Imagine Canada's MacDonald.

Winnipegger Tiffany Vondracek says it's tough for younger people to donate much because many are just getting by themselves. (Trevor Brine/CBC News )

Winnipegger Tiffany Vondracek said she doesn't donate much these days, other than  maybe a dollar at the grocery store checkout.

"All the younger people are broke," she said.

"We want to be donated to. We don't really have anything to give. What we do have, we're just getting by."

James Gillen is sometimes hesitant to donate to large charities because he worries they spend too much on administrative costs and fundraising events. (Trevor Brine/CBC News )

Fellow Winnipeg resident James Gillen supports cancer research and community fundraisers but says he worries about whether big non-profit organizations are transparent enough about their finances and spend too much on administration.

"I think maybe it's been tainted a bit by certain articles about charities, certain charities, being too focused on fundraising and those sort of things rather than a major percentage going to the actually people on the front lines," he said.

Any credible charity will want to be transparent in its spending, said MacDonald. He urged donors to look at outcomes and impact, not just administrative costs.

Charities providing some health and social services

Increasingly, that impact can be apparent at the community level as charities take on some of the work of providing social services and support that may have been done by government agencies in the past.

Health care services, for example, now account for the bulk of charitable donations.

"I could probably go to a room of 100 people, and one by one, mention a mission or cause: 'Have you ever been to a hospital?' 'Have your kids ever played sports?' 'Did they ever take part in a church or a temple or a synagogue or a mosque?' And one by one, people would stand up because they've been connected to the sector," he said.

"And over time, people would come to realize they've benefited from a healthy charitable and non-profit sector."

'I really liked how we're helping other children like us all around the world,' said Aroush Ali, 10, a Grade 5 student at Broadlands. (CBC)

Back at Broadlands Public School, the Global Citizens Club was in the midst of planning a winter carnival. The money they raise will go to UNICEF Canada to give children around the world access to education, nutrition and clean water.

"I really liked how we're helping other children like us all around the world to get more education and to get clean water and have fun," said 10-year-old Aroush Ali.

Her classmate Taanish Kakkar, 10, agreed.

"I think everyone should have the same rights as us, and we should all live in the world of peace," he said. "I feel hope that we can help people by fundraising."

Taanish Kakkar, 10, a member of the Global Citizens Club at Broadlands, says he believes the fundraising he and his classmates have done can help people around the world gain access to some of the same rights people in Canada have. (CBC)

About the Author

Karen Pauls

National Reporter

Karen Pauls is an award-winning journalist who has been a national news reporter in Manitoba since 2004. She has travelled across Canada and around the world to do stories for CBC, including the 2011 Royal Wedding in London. Karen has worked in Washington and was the correspondent in Berlin, Germany, for three months in 2013, covering the selection of Pope Francis in Rome. Twitter @karenpaulscbc