Charities

There are more than 75 000 charities in Canada. They range in size from low-budget, neighbourhood-centred Meals on Wheels services to national healthcare and educational institutions with budgets of almost $1 billion. The majority of registered charities, some 40%, are places of worship. Organizations that provide welfare, education and loosely defined community benefits account for about 15% each, while health-related charities make up 8% of the total. While charities are omnipresent, their impact is rarely considered in macroeconomic terms. The voluntary sector has annual revenues of more than $90.5 billion - the equivalent of the gross domestic product of British Columbia.

Charities play a significant role in the Canadian economy, with revenues 8 times as large as the transportation sector (and many more clients). Despite being termed "voluntary," the sector employs more than 1.3 million Canadians and is responsible for 1 in every 11 jobs. In addition to paid employees, more than 7.5 million people - 1 in 3 adults - do volunteer work for charitable organizations, a contribution valued at $16 billion a year to the economy.

Due to political, fiscal and economic upheavals, the voluntary sector has taken on a new importance. But what is often forgotten is that most money spent by charities - 2 of every 3 dollars - comes from government coffers, and cutbacks have hit the sector at the very time demand for services has soared. Canadians give, on average, only $239 annually to charity, and fewer than 5% of corporations make any charitable contributions at all. Fundraising from individuals and corporations exceeds $10.5 billion annually but has limited potential for growth given existing taxation rules and philanthropic customs.

Since the mid-1990s there have been calls for more formal regulation of the voluntary sector, and for a broader definition of charitable activities under Canadian tax laws. Much of the push is coming from groups who are currently denied charitable status. These include groups involved in economic development and multicultural, women's and environmental issues. The fundamental notion underlying philanthropic activity, that it is directed at individuals rather than groups or whole communities, is also being increasingly challenged.