Organized religion has been the bedrock of the Canadian charitable sector. When charities were first required to register federally in 1967, over 60% of organizations were religious and most were churches. As of January 2022, Christian charities represent just 29.7% of Canada’s 86,080 registered charities. The implications for society, giving, and estate planning are significant.
Let me start with real estate. Most churches play a role as community centres in addition to places of worship. They host community groups that are varied as Alcoholics Anonymous, food programs, Girl Guides, bridge clubs, social justice groups, and nursery schools.
In addition to halls and community-access green spaces, some churches had/have significant non-religious infrastructure. The francophone Catholic church near my childhood home in Ottawa had a school, a pool, a bowling alley, and a credit union on a one-block campus. Even the Protestants bowled there. It’s now a strip mall and condo, all gone except the school. In my neighbourhood in Toronto, we have four massive churches within three blocks. Three are now condos. Community space vanishes.
It also means a loss of communities with shared values that rallied behind other charitable initiatives. These include education, healthcare, social services, and refugee sponsorship. Look around any community and you’ll see core public institutions that grew out of and were initially sustained by churches.
In 2013 in Canada, giving to religious charities represented 41% of all giving. On average, donors who are religious give more than those who are not, and their giving extends beyond their place of worship. Imagine Canada, citing Statistic Canada, reported that in 2013 donors who attended religious service weekly gave an average of four times more per annum than non-religious donors: $1,284 v. $313.
Organized religion provides a faith and values-based motivator for regular charitable giving and community action. Being religious trains you to give. You have a natural community that comes together to act. It’s likely that the overall decline in the number of Canadians who report donations on their taxes in both percentage and absolute terms is related to the reduction in religious charities. This concerning for all charities.
Recently, I have talked to several mainline churches that have seen a decrease in attendance and giving during the pandemic. Older community members are staying away and may be permanently lost. This may push the marginal places of worship into bankruptcy.
These trends have implications for estate planning. Bequests to churches have traditionally been an important source of funding. We may see a further decline in estate donations with a loss of church goers. Churches have a shrinking base of donors that is feeling less connected. Donors may also have less confidence in the future of their churches.
Aside from a possible reduction in the number of bequests, the planning challenges increase. What happens if a church fails? What successor entity will end up receiving an estate donation intended for the local church?
Churches are responding to these concerns by promoting giving through foundations or central bodies. Other donors may go through foundations in the community to protect the donated property and serve the cause. With churches becoming more imperiled, the estate planner needs to ask different due diligence questions.
These trends have been developing for the last 60 years – just ask Quebec. With the pandemic and the aging population (especially of regular attendees of mainline churches) I suspect the pace is accelerating. I write not to be nostalgic – each generation has its own way of addressing public needs – or suggest all churches are failing. I write to reflect. The loss of churches affects the whole charitable sector.