Big Bird on philanthropy

Who will teach people to be generous when the church no longer reaches enough Canadians to do the job?

September 28, 2011 | Viewpoints | Number 19
Mike Strathdee |

That provocative question came not at a church revival meeting, but from a researcher speaking to a mostly secular audience about trends in Canadian philanthropy. Regular congregants give a disproportionately large share of all charitable donations, Penelope Burk told hundreds of fundraisers from across Canada at a national conference in Toronto, Ont., this spring. Not only do people who are religiously active give most of the money received by places of worship, but they also give more to secular charities than people who don’t attend church. They are more likely to maintain and increase their giving, and to volunteer, often at a leadership level, Burk said.

So the steady decline in the proportion of people who go to church regularly is a concern for the entire charitable sector, she said. Who will replace the teaching about generosity that occurs in communities of faith? Burk thinks she has seen the answer: feathered, yellow and nearly three metres tall. In a blog post entitled “Can Big Bird save philanthropy?” Burk noted that Sesame Street, the TV mainstay for preschoolers, teaches financial literacy for young viewers in a way that is “nothing short of brilliant.”

Cygnus Research’s national study of Canadian donors to charity finds that the percentage of donors under 35 who regularly attend church is in the low 20s and dropping. By comparison, 75 percent of preschoolers watch TV, she says. So, provided that parents put their kids in front of the “blue light” while Big Bird and his Muppet friends are discussing the theme of “spend/save/share,” hospitals, universities and community service agencies can quit worrying about their greying donor base. There’s another generation of givers on their way eventually, right?

Maybe not. Sesame Street is doing a service by reminding children that money is not just for spending. But one of the flaws in Burk’s analysis can be found in the order in which the 3 Ss are listed: spending, saving and sharing.

According to the Vanier Institute for the Family, the average Canadian household spends about $1.48 for every dollar of disposable income. The gap between outgo and income has widened steadily over the past decade. When spending more than we have is the norm, there is no room for saving, let alone sharing. Friendly furry puppets reminding kids to save and share their leftovers won’t change that.

U.S. author Nathan Dungan’s “share/save/spend” approach—found online at or in his fabulous new book, Money Sanity Solutions—is much more helpful. The order of the words is important.

When we exercise the spiritual discipline of giving from our first and best—“first fruits” in Old Testament agricultural terms—we aren’t just ensuring that the causes we care about are being supported. During a financial literacy seminar I led some months back, a pastor noted that he and his wife found their budgeting has been easier since making a conscious effort to increase their regular giving.

Studies have borne this out. People who tithe tend to have fewer financial problems. The discipline required to maintain that commitment leads to good choices in other areas.

How is your church doing in helping people put first things first?

Mike Strathdee is a stewardship consultant at the Kitchener, Ont., office of Mennonite Foundation of Canada (MFC). For stewardship education and estate and charitable gift planning, contact your nearest MFC office or visit

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