Canadians need to invest in social infrastructure as intentionally as they in do physical infrastructure. It is commonplace in business to emphasize the importance of location, but we devote much less attention to location when it comes to the charitable landscape, the part of our social infrastructure that captures our giving of money, time and attention to common- good work.

One sign of our changing social infrastructure is the alarming rate at which faith buildings are closing across the country, as shown in recent research by the National Trust for Canada. While these faith buildings do not represent the whole charitable sector, they do account for a significant majority.

Why does this matter? A new study from the UK examines the relationship between the location of charities and the amount of time committed to volunteering. The researchers confirmed that a higher proportion of charities in an area is related to higher levels of volunteering. Canadian researchers have observed a similar pattern in Canada, concluding that as distance from your home to a charity increases the probability that you will volunteer decreases (sort of like finding that people eat more fish near areas where local fishing is popular).

As the UK study outlines, the challenge is that the distribution of charitable organizations, whether in the UK or Canada, is not even. Like attracts like, and charities tend to cluster together. This affects volunteering and the delivery of benefits to people who need the support these charities provide. If you happen to be in an area that does not have any of these common-good organizations, however, you’re less likely to get the benefits. Over time, that could lead to a decrease in civil society activities like giving time and money to help out our neighbours.

The picture the report paints is one of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. It’s no different in the not-for-profit sector, where a few large charities do well financially while the mass of small charities struggles. That’s something policy-makers and those who influence the development of social services need to take into account.

We can infer, from the report, that even when a given area could benefit from the services and a wider range of charities, this demand does not mean there will be a response on the supply side. The very existence of unequal distribution shows that something other than demand is driving the inequality. Urban planners and developers mostly don’t take into account how the distribution of charities (particularly land use distribution) affects quality of life in their communities over the long term. New subdivisions or redevelopments may be planned without consideration of balancing the needs of commercial profitability (and higher municipal tax revenues) with the common-good return from charitable organizations. It should be acknowledged that the physical presence of charitable organizations contributes to the quality of life of a community.

The geography of charity matters. Space plays a vital role in social care, and we ought to pay closer attention to how that dynamic operates. The situation with the generation of social good and charity deserts is analogous to the “food deserts” in Canadian cities. In large, thriving cities there are often areas where affordable, good quality food is not readily available to residents. Similarly, social goods such as volunteering and giving are not evenly distributed and appear to be vulnerable to gaps in the landscape. A survey  being carried out in Ontario by a wide spectrum of common-good organizations (including Cardus) wants to provide a descriptive answer to the following question: What happens to arts and community groups if faith buildings close?

The inner workings of government
Keep track of who’s doing what to get federal policy made. In The Functionary.
The Functionary
Our newsletter about the public service. Nominated for a Digital Publishing Award.

Policy-making at all levels of government must be accountable for ensuring help actually reaches those who need it. Municipalities can identify ways in which they may be overlooking charitable growth from a land use vantage point. Provincial governments and the federal government can review how policies impact large, well-funded university and hospital charities as well as the significant number of very small charities, which together improve the quality of life in our neighbourhoods. Multiple use developments, such as libraries as community centres, churches built with affordable housing onsite, and redevelopment projects that incorporate social enterprise support may induce charitable infrastructure growth.

When we study or report charitable statistics at the national or regional levels, we should be very careful to point out that such broad strokes are not adequate as they do not address local inequalities. For example, it may be that average charitable giving in a given community or city is rising because of intensification in some locations, while there is less and less giving and volunteering in areas that are charity deserts. Research needs to be accurate enough to pinpoint these local variations so that we can see our successes and failures closer to the scale of real life. The Halo Project seeks to provide common-good information by looking at the replacement cost of missing social infrastructure in every municipality in Canada.

There is room to grow our capabilities in the design, development and stewardship of our common-good social infrastructure. We are not born knowing how to do that collectively. It is imperative that we study, propose, develop, share and learn together toward the establishment of the types and locations of social infrastructure that we need in our time. When we regard the sectors in our communities as discreet entities, then lessons learned, insights, and resources may not be shared. When sharing doesn’t happen, the resulting lower performance means lost opportunities to improve our quality of life.

Increasing the quantity of common-good organizations in charity deserts requires being clear about the state of charitable geography in our communities. This must be followed by the formation of creative partnerships that can explore the development of processes that will lead to the establishment of more charitable organizations in areas where they are lacking. A great deal of human suffering has been alleviated by our volunteering and donating. Our future quality of life requires that we not only preserve what we have, but consider how to foster more of what we need.

Photo: Shutterstock/by Ink Drop

Do you have something to say about the article you just read? Be part of the Policy Options discussion, and send in your own submission. Here is a link on how to do it. | Souhaitez-vous réagir à cet article ? Joignez-vous aux débats d’Options politiques et soumettez-nous votre texte en suivant ces directives.

Milton Friesen
Milton Friesen, a former municipal councillor, directs the Social Cities Program at the public policy think tank Cardus.

You are welcome to republish this Policy Options article online or in print periodicals, under a Creative Commons/No Derivatives licence.

Creative Commons License

More like this