My professional readings of late have immersed me in public policy documents regarding charity and how it contributes to society. In the context of Cardus' recent release of A Canadian Culture of Generosity and our soon-to-be-publicly announced 29to42 campaign, I have been thinking about the next steps from a research perspective. There is lots of interesting work being done in the field. Linda Graff has done some fascinating work helping us understand the motives of volunteers, highlighting how mandating volunteer programs and utilizing volunteers simply for political ends up being another form of "genetic engineering." Susan Phillips has done some interesting work on the nature of citizenship and the role of volunteers and volunteer organizations in public policy processes. In a recent publication entitled The Intersection of Governance and Citizenship in Canada: Not Quite the Third Way, she provocatively notes that the rhetoric and theory regarding citizen participation does not match the front-line reality, suggesting three reasons for this disconnect: a public policy focus on political accountability which has necessitated an emphasis on defined contractual relationships which limits collaboration; the fact that "Canada has not developed or remodeled the architecture that supports the capacity of voluntary organizations to collaborate effectively in governing"; and third, a perception of the voluntary sector as service providers with the consequence that it has not built its own policy capacity.
The focus of each of these works is very different and yet there are lots of threads that intersect and warrant an interdisciplinary conversation. In the Cardus work, we mused about the connection between the declining civic core as we measured it in the context of volunteering, giving, and belonging and the concern about declining voter turnout and the democratic deficit in the political sphere. Graff's work focuses our attention on understanding the motivation for volunteerism and not blindly thinking we can conscript their efforts for whatever political ends suit us and link closely with the "otherness" syndrome that we—borrowing from the work of Paul Reed—identified in our report.
Musing as I have been on how what sort of picture was being created by these intersecting threads, I could not help but be reminded of a book on my shelf entitled Charity and Its Fruits—a collection of sermons preached on I Corinthians 13 back in 1738 by Jonathan Edwards. Obviously it has a very different tone than any of the reports I just cited, given that these sermons were preached in a setting of religious revival in a relatively homogeneous Massachusetts small town almost three centuries ago. Yet these sermons in characteristically Edwardsian fashion (for my take and appreciation of this, I refer you to my recent Comment piece), insist on both the supernatural aspect of religion but take great pains to highlight the daily practices that should flow from this. "All true Christian grace tends to practice."
Dealing with the fruits of charity (or our present fear of the decline in charitable fruits, in the Canadian case) is a matter of culture and practice. The benefits of a policy change such as our proposal to change the charitable tax rate from 29 to 42 percent will probably be as much the focus and conversation that is brought to the subject of giving and what it means to be a citizen and a neighbour, than the tangible impact that will be measured by charitable dollars receipted and claimed on tax returns. But rather than to be lamented, this is I think an opportunity to be embraced. It is a means of engaging a diverse society with a multiple of belief systems having to sort out what it means to live civilly alongside each other. Such conversations require us to engage such questions as "Who is my neighbour?" and what I ought to do to help him or her. The answers may range from the trivial through the superficial to the profound, but engaging the question and seeking to consistently live out our answers provide each of a challenge.