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Giving from the heart

Concordia experts discuss the varied reasons people donate, which stem primarily from the desire to make a difference
May 6, 2016
By Julie Gedeon

Why do people donate to charitable causes? What is it that prompts individuals to open their wallets, write out a cheque and even set up a charitable foundation? 

Philanthropy in all its forms is being actively researched and discussed at Concordia as an issue that pertains to the vast majority of Canadians on either the giving or receiving end. 

Michèle Paulin Michèle Paulin, a professor in the Department of Marketing at Concordia’s John Molson School of Business, was one of the panellists at “The Secret of Giving: Why people donate — from boomers to millennials,” a panel discussion hosted by Concordia and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education in 2015.

Canadians are generous. Almost 90 per cent donate to charities in some way, according to the most recent National Survey on Giving, Volunteering and Participating prepared by Statistics Canada and Imagine Canada. However, less than 25 per cent take advantage of the allowable deduction when filing their tax returns. These figures also exclude the numerous times people stuff money into a jar, buy raffle tickets, make in-kind donations or volunteer time or services without asking for a receipt.

“Philanthropy is about the joy of giving,” Elizabeth Gomery, co-founder of Philanthropica, a charity-oriented consultancy, told colleagues at a panel discussion called “The secret of giving: Why people donate — from boomers to millennials” held by Concordia and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education. “People understand that it’s an inherently selfish act that makes us feel good because it’s one of the few ways that we, as individuals, can actually make a positive difference in the world.”

Gomery also noted that individuals who regularly donate money and/or give of their time enjoy longer and healthier lives for the most part. They generally are grateful to be able to help others.

Parental footsteps

Some follow the example set by their parents or other relatives. Reginald Howard Webster saw his father, Senator Lorne Webster, donate money to keep the YMCA in Quebec City open during the Great Depression so that hot soup could be handed out daily to people in need of a meal. Highly successful at various enterprises in his own life years later, R. Howard Webster gained tremendous satisfaction by assisting worthy causes, often doing so anonymously.

The R. Howard Webster Foundation is one of Canada’s leading private grants organizations that have been pivotal in helping Concordia and other institutions and organizations realize their goals. For instance, the foundation supported Concordia’s R. Howard Webster Library, which opened in 1992 and is named after its benefactor.

 “We carefully research how we can strategically donate money to achieve something that government isn’t doing so that all Canadians benefit,” Howard Davidson, BComm 80, said at “The secret of giving.” Davidson is the Webster Foundation’s president and trustee, as well as chair of the Concordia University Foundation and its investment committee. “We always want to make the greatest possible impact with our grants,” he added. “So we particularly like initiatives that involve funding that will be matched by the requesting organization and the government to achieve a significant undertaking.” 

Major donors

Howard Davidson and Elizabeth Gomery Howard Davidson, president and trustee of the r. Howard Webster foundation, and Elizabeth Gomery, co-founder of Philanthropica, spoke at “The secret of giving” panel discussion at Concordia.

Individual contributions tend to be reflective of the country’s wealth concentration. Top donors provided 83 per cent of all donations in Canada, according to the latest Statistics Canada data, with the average donation among this highest percentile being at least $358. That figure may not seem like a lot but it averages out donations that range from less than a hundred dollars to millions.

“People donate money when they can see how a cause aligns with and achieves their own philanthropic goals,” says Shaun G. Lynch, who founded Adventum Philanthropic Marketing in 2006 and teaches marketing at Concordia’s John Molson School of Business (JMSB). “For example, I can’t do heart surgery but I can financially assist the hospital that saved a relative’s life with a triple bypass.”

Honing successful negotiation skills with the goal of obtaining donations is one of Lynch’s main topics. In his 27- year career, Lynch has consulted for a number of large fundraising efforts, including Concordia’s Campaign for a New Millennium, 1996-1999, which generated $77 million for the university. He joined the Department of Marketing when he was invited to teach fundraising at JMSB in 2001.

“A business school that wants a complete approach to management in all sectors must include a course on fundraising to address the major revenue-generating stream of most not-for-profit organizations,” Lynch says.

He launched Adventum Philanthropic Marketing to help smaller organizations in the greatest need of effective fundraising techniques but unable to afford most consultancies. “Too many small organizations make contact with donors just twice a year: once to ask for money, and then again only to send each donor a tax receipt.”

Message relevance

A key aspect of fundraising is the actual message that organizations convey. “There’s a tendency to state how brilliant they are and the wonderful things they’re doing, instead of factually conveying how they meet their donors’ objectives to make the world a better place,” Lynch says.

It’s not enough, for example, to say that a renovated children’s library will look nicer for young readers. “I was able to present some independent research that demonstrated how early literacy programs contribute significantly to children’s social and intellectual development,” he says. “That’s authoritative proof that the library is doing something that works.”

Every donor shares three common elements. The first is ability, inasmuch as people who don’t have money are unlikely to donate. “Ability in itself is insufficient,” Lynch says. “Bill and Melinda Gates could probably fund every charity in the world at this point without batting an eyelash, but unless your organization has a way to get through to them from among the thousands of requests, it’s unlikely to be successful.”

The second is interest or the donor’s concern for a particular cause — which goes back to conveying the way the organization can show how its efforts align with the donor’s intentions.

Finally, there’s linkage. For example, alumni give to their university knowing that earlier donations helped them to get their quality education.

Michèle Paulin, a professor in JMSB’s Department of Marketing who holds the Royal Bank of Canada Distinguished Professorship in Strategic Relationship Marketing, says that long-term affiliation is highly dependent on the student’s actual experience at a school. “It’s so important for universities to minimize paper and online bureaucracy and ensure that students instead obtain the face-to-face assistance they need to graduate with a positive feeling about their education.” 

Richard J. Renaud in 2013 with some of the many students who have benefited from his generosity. Richard J. Renaud (bottom left) is pictured in 2013 with some of the many students who have benefited from his generosity. Renaud says his first gift to the university was a Christmas basket that he and his wife Carolyn (to his right) donated to a Loyola chapel drive soon after their marriage.

Younger tendencies

Social media facilitates reaching out to new people. Yet those individuals who, for instance, click ‘Like’ on a Facebook page must additionally be enticed to visit a website where they can be encouraged to make a small donation through or PayPal, or to agree to provide an email or civic address to be contacted directly.

“Once people have taken an active step in showing interest in a cause, there’s opportunity to regularly communicate how that organization is meeting an individual’s philanthropic vision,” Lynch says. “Then occasionally that person could be asked to consider making a donation.”

And once people make a donation — even a small one — they are more likely to contribute again.

When it comes to younger generations, the messaging on social media has to specifically resonate with individuals for them to participate in a fundraising event or to donate time or money. Take, for example, the way students at many universities across Canada have responded to the plight of homeless people. “They’re not only willing to donate money but to sleep outdoors on a cold night in March to raise awareness and obtain donations from other people,” Paulin says, referring to the 5 Days for the Homeless campaign, which at Concordia was initiated by Josh Redler, BComm 08, in 2008.

Snail mail is still the most effective means of solicitation, with three quarters of donors indicating they initially responded to a letter. Yet email campaigns are on the upswing, with one quarter to a third of recipients being responsive, according to Lynch.

However, the rules of engagement are definitely changing with the younger generations, especially with the increase of online giving and access to information. “Millennials are very savvy these days when it comes to greenwashing by corporations, or companies adopting a charitable symbol but donating relatively very little to that cause,” Paulin explains. “They have constant access to online experts, so when an organization is not being genuine and transparent, word spreads quickly through their social networks.”

The research by Paulin and her students indicates that, despite their reputation to the contrary, millennials are ready to give money, time and other resources when a cause rings true and can make a social or environmental improvement. “However, millennials can’t all be thrown into the same large interest group to the extent that perhaps previous generations were,” Paulin adds. “They have very distinct and varied interests that extend to differences in social and environmental causes as well.”

Forming habits

Giving is a question of finding and pushing the right button, according to Richard J. Renaud, BComm 69. “I’ll have people tell me they’re not in a position to donate, but then I call them up a week later to invite them to a charity golf tournament costing $1,000 for a foursome and they immediately sign up because they love to golf,” says Renaud, who is co-chair of Dundee Sarea LP.

Over many years Renaud has both fundraised on behalf of Concordia and donated generously to the university and to other organizations and institutions. “Making that personal connection with individuals to find out their exact interests is so important to aligning their generosity with specific fundraising campaigns and events,” he says.

His own multiple contributions to Concordia include the Carolyn and Richard J. Renaud Endowment and Adopt-a-Student campaign, and his work as past chair and director of the Concordia Foundation. The Richard J. Renaud Science Complex opened in 2003 and was named as a tribute to his efforts to revitalize the Loyola Campus.

“Father David Fitzpatrick of the St. Ignatius of Loyola Chapel would always say that we express our spirituality through giving,” Renaud recalls of his Loyola High School days. “The Jesuit motto of ‘a man for others’ has been engrained in me as I think it has been in a lot of past and upcoming Loyola graduates.”

He notes that social media and online technology have made administration of a greater number of smaller donations more feasible, especially in the current economic downturn. “Every bit really does help,” he says.

Renaud lauds Concordia’s Graduating Class Gift Fund, an initiative that asks graduating students to donate a minimum amount — $20.16 this year, with the aim of making that amount a monthly gift in perpetuity. “The program initiates the idea of these graduates donating as soon-to-be alumni,” he says. “It gets them into the habit at a time when they’re really aware of what their education at Concordia has afforded them.”

Boomers planning ahead

While millennials are looking to their future, many boomers are reassessing their lives and legacy. “Forty per cent of Canadians say they’re not being asked for a planned gift, with a lot of them adding that they would make one if approached,” Gomery said. “The conversation needs to take place and to start with asking boomers how much of their hard-earned but unused RRSP and RRIF savings they want to see go to government taxes rather than leaving a meaningful legacy.

“Boomers are radicalizing,” she added. “With more time on their hands and a sense of their own mortality, they’re looking at the kind of world they’re leaving to their children and they aren’t very pleased with it. So they’re becoming active in social movements, especially concerning social causes and the environment. It’s something that they’re coming to late in life and feel very passionate about.”

The role of women in gift-giving is also being more recognized and better understood. “Women have always played an active role in helping families to decide how to engage in philanthropy,” Gomery said. Fundraisers increasingly realize that if they don’t involve the women of the family when soliciting a gift, she added, “they won’t get very far.”

An increasing number of career women earning and spending their own income are becoming more interested in philanthropy on their own terms. “Again, however, you must be really genuine and transparent in what you do, because women seem to have a stronger intuitive sense when something is not quite right or seems to differ from the way it’s being presented,” Paulin says. “A discrepancy will steer them away very quickly.”

Paulin adds that the best strategy for any organization attempting to raise money these days is straightforward: “Promise less in terms of what you will accomplish with the donated funds but then fully deliver on that promise.”

—Julie Gedeon, BA 89, BA 01, MA 09, is a Montreal writer, editor and writing instructor/coach.

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