Pay It Forward: Five Innovative Ways to Give Back

Pay it Forward

From microgiving to mutual aid groups, here are fresh ideas to consider when feeling philanthropic.  Photo: ImagineGolf/Getty Images

The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted traditional fundraisers, some of them lavish events where donors paid hundreds, or even thousands, of dollars for an invite. At Imagine Canada, which supports non-profits, charities and social enterprises, president and CEO Bruce MacDonald says their data show about three-quarters of Canada’s charities “saw a decline in at least one form of donation.” At the same time, an Angus Reid poll from August 2022 showed 54 per cent of 1,500 Canadians surveyed had reduced charitable donations in response to inflation and the increased costs of living.

While in-person dinners and galas have resumed, a looming recession means “organizations are facing increased demand for services,” MacDonald says. The bright side is that tough economic times have prompted Canadians to get creative. “Pet-food banks started to emerge through the pandemic,” he says, giving one example of a mini-philanthropic effort that continues today. It’s a great reminder that, no matter how tight the budget, small acts of kindness can have a big impact.

Here are fresh ideas to consider when  feeling  philanthropic. 




Large lump-sum donations will always be valued by charities, but it’s not the only way to give. Microphilanthropy – donations of as little as 25 cents to $25 – can still make a meaningful impact. “Any capacity of giving to an organization makes a difference,” explains Meredith Gray, a senior marketing manager at Keela, a fund-raising and donor management software built specifically for non-profits. “If you have 100 people capable of giving $1, that’s $100. They do make a significant difference, especially when you look at it over time.” It can happen anywhere – think of the prompts at the McDonald’s kiosks that ask if you want to to round up your purchase to the nearest dollar, or a request at the supermarket checkout for a $1 or $2 donation. 

You could also download an app called Moka that rounds up your debit and credit card purchases and donates them to a charity of your choice at the end of every month. Gray notes giving typically decreases as people reach retirement age, when seniors may have less disposable income, especially if they rely on government pensions and benefits. With a potential recession and increased costs of living, she thinks more charities will focus on microgiving. “Keeping major donors engaged is important, but you could very much shift the focus of messaging to include smaller donation amounts to be more inclusive,” she says.


Community Fridges


In May 2020, Trach Luong heard about a New York community fridge project on a Calgary radio station. “People were coming together and putting their own fridges out on the street,” Luong says. Volunteers would stock the fridge with fresh food for anyone to take. “I thought, ‘Wow, what a great idea.’” 

Two weeks later, Luong, a property manager, put a fridge outside one of the buildings he maintains in the Bridgeland neighbourhood. A member of his church, who works for an appliance company, donated the fridge, and they created a sign explaining that people could take what they needed. Luong set up a schedule with other churchgoers to maintain the fridge twice a week, clearing out expired items and ensuring it’s well stocked. For Luong, it’s been a “humbling” way to give back to the community. “I remember the first day, we put out a dozen sandwiches, and they were all gone in a few hours,” he says. “We felt very honoured that we were able to help.”


RX for the Needy


The first time Markham, Ont.-based retired nurse Erin Cattral volunteered with the Toronto chapter of Not Just Tourists in January 2015, she joined a “packing party.” About 25 volunteers were organizing donated medical supplies into suitcases at a church in the west end of Toronto. Eventually, other volunteers would take those suitcases with them on vacation to countries like Cuba, Ethiopia and India.

“People apply online to take suitcases wherever they happen to be going in the world,” says Cattral, who now volunteers as a travel co-ordinator. “Some people might take a backpack with them. Or some people apply and say, ‘I’m going to send a [shipping] container.’” The Toronto chapter of Not Just Tourists doesn’t handle medications, although other chapters do, and most of their supplies, like bandages, syringes, IV kits and surgical equipment, come from hospitals and hospices. During COVID, the organization donated PPE back to hospitals and nursing homes, and essentially shut down as travel halted. But Cattral says the Toronto chapter of Not Just Tourists is back to about 50 per cent of its regular volume, as travel and in-person packing parties return. “We’re trying to rebuild,” she explains. 


Mutual Aid Groups


When Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022, Sandra Robinson, a business professor at the University of British Columbia, received a call from a Ukrainian friend in Los Angeles. “She was trying to get her family into Vancouver and we happened to have space for them,” Robinson explains. 

When she learned they were hoping another Ukrainian family trying to escape the war could come with them, Robinson got to work. “I reached out to our network in the neighbourhood and said, ‘Does anyone want to take a Ukrainian family?” she says. “We were inundated with tons of people that said, ‘We’ve got space.’” 

In total, Robinson has matched 17 Ukrainian families with hosts in her Vancouver neighbourhood of Dunbar. She organized volunteers through WhatsApp chats (Robinson says she has about 20 core volunteers), delegating tasks as they came up. “We have a person who is a whiz at finding free furniture,” she says. Another young person and her mother opened a “store” in their basement, with free clothing, toys and games for kids. Robinson is gratified to offer direct, personalized help to people who need it, but an unexpected bonus is the kinship she’s developed with fellow volunteers. “There’s a real sense of community, because we’re small and we all get to know each other.” 


Spreading the Word


Rajiv Kalsi learned about Little Free Libraries from a magazine article about an Ottawa boy who started one in his front yard. It was a small structure where people could drop off books they didn’t need anymore, or take books they wanted to read. “My wife and I are both avid readers,” Kalsi explains. “I thought it was a great idea to promote reading.”

About four years ago, Kalsi spent about $30 on materials and a day’s work to assemble and erect a small structure on his Ottawa property that he and his wife stocked with used books from their collection. “Pretty soon after, people would stop by and have a look inside or would drop off books.” Kalsi often has a surplus, which he stores in his basement so he can restock the library when supplies are low, or he’ll drop extras off at a local charity store. But he doesn’t think of his work as largesse. “It’s a way of developing a bit more of a community,” he says. 

A version this article appeared in the Feb/Mar 2023 issue with the headline ‘Pay It Forward’, p. 20.