Sam WattsRecently I told one of my American friends that I was writing a column on philanthropy for this publication.  He is well acquainted with philanthropy and he asked me if this assignment was difficult.  After all, he said, “Quebec ranks 62nd out of 64 states and provinces in terms of per capita donations to charity.” Clearly he had reviewed the December 2020 report issued by the Fraser Institute. That report uses weighted averages to evaluate donations as a percentage of available income. This isn’t a secret; information about charitable donations can be extracted from publically available data. Despite having some of the most generous tax deductions, Quebec residents consistently donate considerably less to charitable causes than almost everyone else in North America.

Interestingly, Quebec ranks high in terms of the percentage of people who claim a charitable deduction on their tax return but very low in terms of total dollars donated. So, are Quebecers a bunch of tightwads?  Do we care about the various services that are provided by philanthropic organizations? Or is there a logical explanation that can help us understand the reasons for this apparent gap? Most experts agree that philanthropy is underdeveloped in Quebec but I propose that there are a number of historical and structural reasons that help explain this specific data.

1. The decline of religion in Quebec

Many people are surprised to learn that Quebec went from being one of the most religious parts of North America to one of the most secular between 1960 and 1980. In the past, a donation to the synagogue or church served to fund a number of social services. In other provinces and states these social services were typically managed by government agencies. Since charitable donations to religious institutions represent over 35% of all charitable gifts, it is logical Quebec’s overall charitable donations in the 21st century would be very low when compared to other parts of North America. The general decline in religious affiliation had very little effect on overall charitable donations in the Jewish community and activity in this sector has remained relatively strong.

2. Today, there is an expectation in Quebec that social services ought to be funded by the government – not by donors

In most parts of North America many services related to health, education and the arts are largely funded by generous grants, donations and bequests. There is an expectation in Quebec, and particularly among Montrealers, that our Federal and Provincial governments ought to provide significant funding to cover the costs of education, culture and social services. Sadly, the funding has not always been adequate. Many people are surprised when I share how several sectors like housing for the disadvantaged, food security, mental health, and a number of services for vulnerable women are chronically underfunded by our government.

3. The philanthropic infrastructure in Quebec is young and evolving

As a function of the two previous reasons, there was, until recently, a serious gap in philanthropic structures and in the understanding of fundraising. Some North American cities have had well-funded public foundations for decades and charitable organizations that have built deep roots in the community. It is even fair to say that fundraising in Quebec lacked sophistication and did not employ the range of strategies that have been successful in other parts of Canada and the USA. This is changing rapidly!

In conclusion, statistics like those in the Fraser Institute’s report do not always provide us with the entire picture. I am convinced that we are generous. At the same time, we can learn from the best practices of others. The good news is that we can anticipate that our philanthropic reflex will continue to develop in coming years.

Sam Watts is the CEO of Welcome Hall Mission  He is also the author of Good Work…Done Better

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