For the past 23 years, CanadaHelps has been the leading online platform for charitable donations, assisting Canadians in discovering and supporting causes close to their hearts. Join Douglas Nelson in conversation with Duke Chang, the CEO and President of CanadaHelps, as they delve into the organization’s pivotal role in the sector. Duke shares insights on fundraising strategies and the digital tools provided to empower Canadians in garnering donor support. Explore the challenges and solutions in attracting a younger generation of donors and gain valuable perspectives on leadership traits essential for reversing trends in the charitable sector. Tune in to this episode to be a witness to CanadaHelps’ transformative journey in 2024.
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CanadaHelps With Duke Chang, CEO & President
Welcome to the show. In this episode, we have Duke Chang. Duke is the President and CEO of CanadaHelps, an organization that provides fundraising and technical support for Canada’s 86,000 charities. Duke is an accomplished executive with more than 25 years of leadership in financial services and technology, transforming businesses through innovation and product-led growth.
As CEO of CanadaHelps, Duke applies those skills to supporting Canada’s charities to do even better in service of purpose and the Canadians that they serve. In our conversation, Duke talks about the role of CanadaHelps, the emerging trends in giving, and what our organizations can do to attract a younger generation of donors and more donors to their vital services. Please enjoy this great conversation with Duke Chang.
Thanks for having me on the program.
We are so excited to have you on the program. It’s great to be able to have a guest on with a wide view of our social profit sector and all the great work that’s happening there. As we get started, I’m sure most of our audience are familiar with CanadaHelps in one way or another. As CEO, tell us a little bit about what the organization does, what your mission is, and who you serve.
We are Canada’s largest online charitable fundraising and donation platform. We’ve been here for Canadians to help them find the causes and the charities that they care about and be able to make a donation and support those causes online easily. At the same time, for charities in Canada, and there are 86,000 of them in Canada, we are there as a technology service to help them with their fundraising and provide the digital tools to help them garner that support from their donors.
As someone who has grown up in the sector and been very aware of CanadaHelps for many years and our work here at the Discovery Group, we see a lot of those charities that are new to fundraising or maybe new as charities relying on the services of CanadaHelps. CanadaHelps plays a vital role in enabling philanthropy, particularly for those smaller organizations. How does a platform approach that with new organizations to fundraising?
Sometimes, when there’s a new charity out there, they don’t even know that we exist yet until that first check magically arrives at their doorstep. All of a sudden, some wonderful donors out in Canada discovered this charity on our website and decided that they wanted to support them. They go to our website and provide that support, and then we send that money to the charity.
That often begins the dialogue with that new charity or that small charity to say, “You’ve got donors out there who are supporting you on our platform. Let us tell you about all the other wonderful things that we could do for you to help with your fundraising, whether it’s through custom donation forms on your own website through things like event ticketing or peer-to-peer fundraising.”
CanadaHelps is part of so many conversations about organizations wanting to scale up their fundraising and get started. On the other side of it, how does CanadaHelps act as that front door for donors who are looking to make a donation? They may not know what CanadaHelps is. How do they find you?
We try to make it as easy as possible for donors. There are so many wonderful charities out there and so many wonderful causes. Sometimes, a donor will be searching for a very specific charity. They’ll easily be able to find that because all 86,000 are on our website. They can make a donation there. Sometimes, it’s a discovery process. It is a discovery cause because it is about the cause I care about and then the charities that are related to that cause. Through our website, you can also go and search by cause area and look for those opportunities.
Sometimes, the donors don’t want to pick a charity. They might say, “I want to support a cause, but I don’t necessarily want to pick one specific charity.” That’s where our cause funds come into play. Those are almost like mutual funds for giving. They’re a basket of charities all aligned around a similar cause. You can donate once, and that money gets spread across that cause and all the charities that are in that basket. That’s another wonderful way to give. The other way we make it easy for donors is we accept multiple ways to give. We accept credit cards. We accept securities donations. We try to make it as easy as possible for donors.
CanadaHelps does provide that front door for so many donors. You also play a leadership role in two really important initiatives that I want to get to right off the top here. One is the curator of GivingTuesday and the force and the energy behind that in the sector. Let’s start there. Tell us a little bit about how GivingTuesday got started with CanadaHelps and how it’s rolled out over the sector over the last couple of years.
GivingTuesday itself started off as almost a counterbalance to all the consumerism that was happening towards the end of the year and the holiday season. We had Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and all these other things. Some wonderful smart people in the US came up with GivingTuesday as a way of expressing generosity during that season, too.
It came to Canada. We helped bring it into Canada along with some other organizations. We continue to support GivingTuesday. It is certainly about giving, but it’s also about giving in multiple ways. Much of GivingTuesday is community-supported efforts to activate communities to be generous with each other in the community as well as the financial giving aspect of it. We have over 50,000 partners in the GivingTuesday network in Canada that try to get Canadians out and active in expressing their generosity during that period of the year. That’s an important initiative as we think about the overall giving in Canada.
Anyone who’s on LinkedIn or who has made a donation to any charity in Canada knows when GivingTuesday is coming. There’s such energy that goes into it. We’ve seen across the board some donations going down with the number of Canadians giving to charities decreasing. Has that been the same effect for GivingTuesday?
GivingTuesday is still a very strong movement. It’s one of the strongest days of the year for giving. Many charities, particularly the smaller ones, rely on that one big day. For example, you have a retailer who might rely on Black Friday as their one big day. It’s a marker for how the overall giving season is going to go. It is the beginning of the giving season. People are giving throughout that period of the year all the way up to the last day of the year.
It gives a reason for a lot of organizations, particularly those smaller ones you referenced, to be in front of donors. It is like, “The reason why we’re asking you to consider a gift is because it’s GivingTuesday.” Rather than needing to manufacture a reason, it’s ready-made. The technology’s there to make it easy for donors to give. We hope it encourages people to give more frequently and more generously.
There’s a lot of energy around the movement.
The other initiative, and this probably has quite the prominence yet, but it certainly is on its way, is Make It Monthly. It is this campaign that CanadaHelps launched a few years ago to encourage donors to give on a monthly basis. Can you tell us a little bit about how you decided to do that and how it’s rolling out?
Yeah. It’s following the consumer trends. If you think about the subscription economy, we subscribe to everything in our lives. We have movie subscriptions. We have music subscriptions. Depending on where in the world you live, you can subscribe to a Cookie of the Month club where somebody will mail you a cookie every month. We’re very used to this idea of the subscription economy. We really wanted to bring that to the charitable sector to say, “In the same way you might subscribe to Netflix or to Amazon, subscribe to your favorite charities. Show them that you have that steady support for them month on month.”
In 2022, we launched a campaign called Make It Monthly, which is in March. Donors can set up these monthly subscriptions. They can do it all year round, but we try to make a push forward in March. This 2024, we’re doing something a little bit different. If you set up a new monthly gift for charity this March 2024 during the campaign for at least $20, we will match you with an extra one-time donation of $20.
If you have an existing campaign or existing monthly donation already set up with us and want to add at least $10 to it, we’ll also do another $10 on top of that. We’re trying to encourage Canadians to give and set up these monthly subscriptions to charities because, for them, it becomes that steady, predictable revenue. They can count on your support. It’s less of a sawtooth pattern for them, if you will.
The other thing I really love about the monthly giving as a movement is that it invites people to be a part of the life of the organization. Most often, they’re funding the general support of the organization and the purpose of the organization. It pairs nicely with the movement towards trust-based philanthropy in the sector as well to allow donors to be a part of the purpose that these organizations serve and to give that predictable revenue for the organizations who are delivering their vital services.
That’s so critical, particularly for the smaller charities out there who don’t have a large revenue base. Having that predictability and that donor support out there really matters to them when you’re a small charity.
That’s right. So CanadaHelps is a technology platform. It encourages donors to give in unique ways at particular times of the year and throughout the whole year. It acts as an enabler for charities that are new to fundraising and not-so-new to fundraising that are a part of CanadaHelps. One of the things I’ve observed, and I’m interested in your perspective on this, is that CanadaHelps beyond that service provision. That champion role seems to have taken on a bit more of an advocacy role on behalf of the sector and the needs of the sector. As someone relatively new in your role as CEO, how do you blend that service provision with that role for advocacy for the social profit sector?
One of the advantages that we have because we are connected to so many charities in Canada, over 30,000 of them, and see so many donations from Canadians is we get a lot of data. We can tell great stories out of that data to show what’s going on across our sector. Each year, we publish the giving report. This is our seventh year in April 2024 that we’ll publish it. It really is that online benchmark of what’s going on with giving in Canada.
From that data, we are able to tell the story of the sector and show what’s going on not only back to the sector and the charities themselves but also to Canadians to say, “These are really important trends happening that people ought to be paying attention to.” That’s what we try to do, along with being that service provider. We try to take advantage of the data that we’re gathering from the services that we provide to create value and a narrative for the sector from that.
I’m sure you know this. Many of our audience are doing the secret I’m about to reveal. Your giving report provides really essential information for organizations’ executive directors to inform their boards about trends in giving. They can put their own organization’s results up against, “This is what’s happening across the country. This is what’s happening across our sector,” to provide that vital context that boards need. Organizations need to know whether they need to fundamentally redo things, whether they’re on track, or whether they’re tracking ahead. In the absence of that context, it’s hard to know if you’re looking at your own organization’s results.
That is very true. We have a number of charity leaders who tell me they use it in their annual meetings with their boards as a point of discussion, almost as a pre-read. Some of the key things that we’ve highlighted in the past that have been hot topics are certainly engaging younger donors. We know we have a strong base of older Canadians who are supporting charities, but over time, we need to shift our focus to younger donors. That’s been a challenging conversation for a lot of charities to figure out how to bring in younger donors, how to apply the right amount of resources to that, and how to talk to younger donors about giving, which is different than what you would talk to your core base about it.
Younger donors are more likely to be monthly donors because they understand the subscription economy. That’s a big part of it. In our work, we engage with a number of health organizations and a lot of hospital foundations. Boards say, “What about our younger donors?” The younger donors in the hospital context are people in their mid-60s because they are the younger donors. Maybe we could catch people in their late 50s. For organizations that may be outside of the healthcare context or outside of the four walls of the healthcare context, what are the challenges that some of those organizations are facing when it comes to attracting younger donors?
First, it’s a different mindset with younger donors. Whereas older donors might have a sense of connection to institutions and specific charities, younger donors are much more connected to the cause. They want to see that problem solved. They don’t care about the brand name of who’s solving the problem, if you will. They really care about the cause itself. There might be less affinity to specific institutions. That’s challenge number one. How do I attract them to my organization’s way of solving this particular challenge or addressing this particular social issue?Younger donors are much more connected to the cause they want to see that problem solved. They don’t care about the brand name of who is solving the problem; they care about the cause itself. Click To Tweet
Number two is channels of reach. Younger donors are increasingly online. They’re on social media. How do you engage them? How do you find them there? Number three, for a lot of charities, is thinking about that mix that you have in younger donors. Some of them have already experienced some intergenerational wealth transfer, so they have wealth out of their wealth pocket to give to charities. That’s still a relatively small portion, but it’s going to grow over time. We know there’s a big wave of generational wealth transfer that’s going to happen. Some of them are still early on in their careers, so they don’t have a wealth pocket to give out of and are giving out of the income pocket. They may be giving at low levels.
It is then about stewardship. It’s about engaging them and building out loyalty. It is so that when they do have that money or when they do have that wealth pocket, they’re already connected to your charity. The last one that I always talk about is that sweet spot which we call the HENRYs. HENRY stands for High Earning Not Rich Yet. These people are in well-paying professions and might have a pretty significant income pocket but are still building towards that wealth pocket. Those people you want to have stewardship around.
The way organizations talk about themselves that’s connected to movement has been changing to address a lot of what you outlined in your answer there. One of the pieces of advice we always give to organizations is, “If you’re thinking of leading your fundraising messaging with, ‘Founded in 1975,’ or ‘Founded in 2020,’ and using the historical story of your organization as the catch for younger donors, you will not get donations. They will not finish the sentence,” and needing to put the cause and the purpose forward. We’re seeing it work more that organizations are leading with that purpose, but there are some holdouts. What do you think we should do with those organizations that want to anchor in their own story or their organizational narrative?
They have to pick the moments to make that transition and realize that they can use data to sub-segment their donor population. For that older core donor in their base, that’s probably the right message to go out with still. It is being able to use data to say, “For this younger donor, I have to switch that up. I need to customize and personalize that message for that younger donor to talk about the cause, talk about my impact results, and use data to tell that story instead of history to tell that story.”
Current and future-forward rather than historical, for sure. You mentioned hearing from executive directors and CEOs and how they use the information from CanadaHelps. What are the challenges you’re hearing from executive directors and CEOs about the sector more generally?
The trends that we highlighted in 2023 very much resonated across the board. We continue to see spikes in demand for charitable services that are outpacing revenue. Fifty-seven percent of charities said that they have more demand than they have resources to fulfill in 2023. We’re seeing a high spike in demand and Canadians who need to go to charitable services for the first time for the basics, like food, shelter, and clothing. That’s 20% and will grow to 24% in the next few months. That’s a shockingly high number of Canadians turning to charities all of a sudden.
That’s a pretty significant increase in demand. That’s the one thing as a sector we can’t really control, so we have to figure out how to deal with supply. That’s what a lot of charitable leaders will come to talk to me about. It is, “How do we boost our fundraising? How do we figure out how to do more with what we’ve got? The demand keeps coming.”
It is such a terrible or very challenging spot for those organizations because the messaging of, “Help. We’re drowning,” doesn’t resonate particularly well with donors or it doesn’t work more than once or twice a year. It can be challenging for organizational leaders to position with hope and optimism when they’re facing increasing demands for their services. What advice does CanadaHelps give them in terms of finding the right balance between their messaging and the demand?
You have to put a healthy dose of reality into your message to say, “This is where we’re at. This is the amount of demand that we have because we’re doing the things that you’ve asked us to do as a donor. We’re being asked to do more now.” It is also to paint that picture to say, “There’s a light at the end of the tunnel. Look at all the good that’s happening in the world. Look at the transformations that are happening out there.”
Sometimes, that’s challenging to break through. Particularly, in 2023, we’ve had so many crises that take up a lot of the air of what’s going on. We had wildfires. We’ve had wars. We’ve had all sorts of hurricanes. Everything that’s happened in the world. There were earthquakes. Those Canadians who are out to give feel those things happening and they want to help.
If you’re an arts charity, for example, and you’re not crisis-driven, it’s sometimes hard to break through enough in that cycle and to say, “What we’re doing is important too.” The arts is not just about performance. The arts is also about mental health. The arts is about access and equity. The arts is about so much more. Being able to tell that broader story about how your cause impacts Canadian society is really important.Being able to tell that broader story about how your cause impacts Canadians’ society is really important. Click To Tweet
It is hard for a number of organizations to find that space to tell their story. That’s one of the great advantages that CanadaHelps offers. They can tell that story on your platform and encourage donors to support them. What are you hearing from organizational leaders about the number of donations? We’re seeing the total number of philanthropy given. People filing with the CRA are still increasing, but the number of individuals filing or claiming a tax receipt or tax credit for a charitable gift continues to decline. Is that something that you see as continuing? As we’re coming out of the pandemic, is there room to turn the corner here?
That’s very much a long-term trend. It’s a 30-year trend. Many years ago, 30% of Canadians claimed a charitable donation on their tax filing. That’s down to 18%. That’s a twelve-point difference over the years. That’s a long-term trend that we continue to see. What we saw in 2023 was those who had the means gave more. The average donation amount went up, but fewer people were able to give. In fact, I had some charities come in to say, “There are probably some people who were former donors who are now accessing our services.” That’s the impact the economy has had.
That’s a really dramatic shift for those individuals but certainly for those organizations as well. That trend of increasing numerators and decreasing denominators is concerning across the sector. There’s a lot of hand-wringing about it. One of the things that we see is a lot of organizations trying to say, “We’re going to switch to do major gifts. We’re going to ask fewer people for more money.” For some organizations, they can be effective in doing that. For many, what they mean by major gifts is, “We’re going to ask the same people for more money.” How do you see this trend towards higher philanthropy from a smaller number of donors playing out in the fundraising programs of the organizations that you’re working with?
The fundraising programs have limited resources themselves, so they have to make choices on where they invest their fundraising dollars. That certainly can yield short-term results. Will that, in the long-term, build you that sustainable donor base over time as we go through intergenerational wealth transfer and your older donors are no longer with us? That’s a big question mark.
My viewpoint is that you have to balance these things out. You still need those core donors who have been giving to you year after year to continue to contribute and where they have the opportunity to contribute more, but you have to start finding that new donor base. Quite frankly, as Canadians, we have to find that generosity in ourselves again.
One of the things that is a conversation going on across the sector is how we get that generosity-reinforcing loop to start growing again. How do we get Canadians to care more about each other? How do we get them to care more about the causes and important societal things that are going on in our country so that we can start building that up again? As charities and fundraisers, we can do all we can with what’s going on out there, but unless we get more Canadians to participate over time, it will continue to be a slow decline, right?
It is. Having grown up in the sector and been able to grow a fundraiser myself, I see this trend as something that has always been on conference agendas for the last couple of years. It is the idea that the average donation is going to go up, which as someone who was doing major gift fundraising, sounded good, but as my career went on, I learned there’s danger in that number for the sustainability of organizations. If you had a magic wand, what would you do to change one thing that would help reverse the course of this long-term reduction in the number of Canadians making gifts?
I would wave that wand so that COVID never happened.
That’s a good one.
That has a lot to do with it because it made us even more isolated from each other as communities. We were already beginning to be isolated from each other because of social media, quite frankly. Ironically, the thing that was supposed to make us more connected to each other made us somewhat less connected to each other. COVID doubled down on that in the isolation. When you’re disconnected from your community and you don’t know what’s going on with your neighbors, it’s easy to turn a blind eye to what’s going on.Ironically, social media, the thing that was supposed to make us more connected to each other, actually made us somewhat less connected to each other and then COVID doubled down on that with the isolation. Click To Tweet
The COVID pandemic has really challenged organizations to recover their sense of purpose. As I’m sure you’ve seen, a number of organizations that had benefited from government funding programs during the pandemic are struggling in the absence of those programs. At the same time, demand is increasing. I like the idea of the magic wand to eliminate COVID. In conversations with CEOs and executive directors, I’m sure you hear a number of ideas about what needs to happen in the sector. What is a common trait among leaders who want to help reverse this trend?
One thing I talk to charitable leaders a lot about that was a surprise to me coming into this sector was when I first got here, everybody kept talking to me about the sector this and the sector that. I thought, “This charitable sector in Canada must be this really well-organized and well-structured entity out there.” It almost seemed monolithic. As I got into it and started getting out there more amongst the sector, I realized, “It’s not that at all. It’s a loose federation of sometimes warring factions.”
One thing that we have to remember is that we’re all in it for the social good. That’s our common purpose and the common grounds that we live on. To the extent that we can, we should be collaborating more. We should find opportunities to talk to each other within the sector and work together within the sector. We should realize that oftentimes, that human being standing in front of us who’s dealing with insecurity also needs help finding a job. They also might need housing in a few months. They’re the same person. They’re the same human beings that we’re all trying to serve. This idea that we need to not act as a constellation of 86,000 but find more ways to organize and collectively collaborate is an important theme for us to consider going into the future.
That’s what I would use your magic wand on is to create that sense of shared value in the common good. I know it is in the hearts and in the souls of nearly everyone or almost everyone in the sector, but it is hard. It feels like we’re managing scarcity rather than embracing abundance a lot of the time in the sector.
That’s right. Scarcity causes some weird behavior sometimes.
You’ve put your finger on a really important point there. In one of my favorite books by Zadie Smith, she makes an observation that people aren’t poor because they make bad decisions. They make bad decisions because they’re poor. It is an astute way of understanding the impact of scarcity on thinking on an individual level and on a family level in communities. It’s something that we see across our sector, the sector, the monolithic sector on a daily basis.
Sometimes, that’s very true on the individual level. When we look at it on a macro level, I often think back to Economics 101 and the tragedy of the commons. We often think about that in terms of environmental problems, but society is a commons, too. If you look at what’s going on, we are dealing with some of the challenges of saying, “What can I, as one person, do to fix things? I’m one individual here.” If we all do our little bit, whether it’s with the environment, social justice, or whatever else, it does make a difference. People have to see that their individual actions still can make a difference.People’s individual actions can still make a difference. Click To Tweet
I want to transition into your personal journey or your story. You come from the corporate world as Worldwide Head of Product, Business Development, and Customer Experience for Lenovo Solutions and Services group. An obvious step from that into being the CEO of CanadaHelps, right?
I had to paint a picture. Most of my career has been spent at the intersection of business and technology and largely in financial services. If you took those vectors, it does make a lot of sense to come to CanadaHelps. In some ways, it was the perfect fit for what I wanted to do next. I wanted to take everything I had learned about financial services and technology and running those types of organizations and bring it to this amazing organization that had this incredible purpose and mission to serve our country. It was a slam dunk for me to look at this opportunity to really make a difference in Canada.
I’m glad it was obvious to you. We really appreciate the work that you’re doing. What was it like on that first day, imagining you walking up to the office, putting your hand on the door, and opening up and saying, “I am Duke. I’m the new CEO.” What was that like?
It’s an interesting time to walk into an office because it’s not like it used to be. Luckily, the team hosted an event, so I got to meet a lot of the team that day. It’s interesting. One of the things that CanadaHelps offered me, but any organization in the sector offers, that you cannot buy with money in the for-profit sector is an entire team and an entire organization aligned to the mission.
I can confidently say that 100% of the people at CanadaHelps are there because they believe in our mission. That’s really hard to find in the for-profit world. That’s an incredible starting point already. To look at the rich legacy and history of the organization and what it has already been able to accomplish and think that there is still so much more opportunity for us to help Canadians, help Canadian charities be successful, and grow our social purpose in Canada, it’s an amazing place to be. I run into work every day.
That’s a good point to ask the question we ask all of our guests. What are you looking forward to?
It’s an interesting time for us as we begin to evolve past our pandemic days, as the economy starts picking up again, and as we have this generational shift in society. There’s a lot of change happening in our world. It is really incumbent upon those of us in the sector to think about how we want to shape our own narrative going forward to the future.
The charitable sector and the social good sector play a really important and vital role in Canadian society. We’re 10% of GDP. We employ several million people. We do all this good out there that needs to be amplified and magnified. During this time of transition, we’re either going to grab the bull by the horns and make a ride up or we’re going to continue to suffer some of the challenges that we have. This is a moment in time when we have to start making a shift in how we do things in the sector.
I love it. I really appreciate the way you and your colleagues tell the stories of the organizations that are grabbing the bull by the horns that are having a positive impact on the community. More and more as a sector and as leaders of organizations, we need to be telling the stories of success rather than leading with the stories of lack and scarcity. CanadaHelps does such a great job to help others tell their story well, so thank you. Thank you for being a part of the show.
Thank you for having me on the program.