We got a Cheque in the Mail for Half a Million Dollars; No, that’s not the Norm

Ene Underwood
4 min readAug 29, 2022
A cheque worth $500,000

Last year a white, normal-sized, unsuspecting envelope arrived at our Toronto office. Amidst the pile of packages and letters we receive daily, no one thought much of it. The envelope came from an address that belonged to a woman named “Muriel Dobbie.” Again, we scratched our heads as no one seemed to know who this person was.

Inside the envelope was a cheque made out to Habitat for Humanity GTA for half a million dollars.

It’s the kind of donation that a fundraiser will work, months, nay, years to receive, after cultivating great relationships and showing donors how their funds will make an impact. And yet, here we were, receiving an incredible act of generosity, from someone we didn’t know. There was no letter to explain, no phone number we could call to say thank you, but our team was able to get in touch with Muriel Dobbie’s lawyer.

That is when we learned she had passed away and had left much of her estate to five charities, including our own. We were also informed that we would be receiving a second cheque for half a million dollars in a few months’ time.

Muriel Dobbie was a woman who lived to see her 90s, having mourned the loss of her husband ten years earlier. She and her husband didn’t have any children. We can only surmise why she chose to support us. Perhaps she saw our work on television or heard about us from a friend and was inspired by the power of the Habitat for Humanity model to mobilize and inspire volunteers and communities to give a hand-up to families in need of safe, stable homes. I like to think that Muriel Dobbie died with a sense of gratification knowing that the wealth she and her husband had built would create a lasting and transformational legacy. Muriel Dobbie’s gift to Habitat for Humanity GTA is already helping numerous families with lower incomes to realize the stability, strength and self-reliance of affordable homeownership. Moreover, as Habitat homeowners vacate rental units, Muriel Dobbie’s legacy is creating a ripple effect of new affordable housing opportunities all the way down to people experiencing homelessness.

We are tremendously lucky to have people like Muriel Dobbie and many others who donate to Habitat for Humanity GTA and other organizations. But sadly, charities of all shapes and sizes and non-profit organizations like our own find ourselves increasingly anxious about what the future holds when it comes to donations.

The “giving gap” is widely-known in charity and non-profit circles but probably not to most Canadians. It goes like this: there is a decline in the percentage of Canadians who donate to charities and we are increasingly overly dependent on a smaller group of aging donors. As these donors pass away, the donation dollars continue to go down. According to the 2022 Giving Report, 25% of Canadians claimed donations when filing taxes in 2006, but this has steadily dropped to 19% in 2019. The age group who tends to give the most is those aged 55 and up — they even helped by giving more during the pandemic. The report also explains that while younger generations, those aged 25–39 years old, would hope to give more, they increasingly cannot because of inflationary pressures, and steeper housing and living expenses — a point I’ve written about previously.

Inflation is also a serious challenge for affordable housing providers like Habitat for Humanity GTA. Rising Bank of Canada rates, coupled with increased construction costs, have pushed costs up $80,000 to $100,000 per unit higher than pre-pandemic.

Shelter-based charities like ours can continue our work but how big of an impact we can have on changing lives will hinge on two key variables: continued support and focus from all levels of government, and, more and more people donating. Those of us who are in a privileged position, who have our mortgage paid and who can safely afford inflationary pressures on groceries and gas must rally and give — like never before. We must see what Muriel Dobbie saw. Our privilege has created an opportunity for us to change lives. When donor and volunteer contributions enable families to go from living in sub-standard living conditions to a Habitat home, we see improvements in their income, education, savings, mental and physical health. Families and their children are able to thrive and realize their full potential — a positive outcome that benefits us all.

As we step forward into this period of inflation and potentially a recession — we need to do so recognizing that our citizens who live on lower incomes are the most at stake. Charities like ours are ready, willing and able to turn this time of deep anxiety for these citizens into a transformational turning point. If those of us who are doing well give as much as we can — of whatever we can — we will help families and our neighbours forge ahead on a brighter path. While charities like our own hope to see more mysterious envelopes with extraordinary donations, we continue to work to engage our communities and help the next generation of donors see and feel the impact of our program. With a little generosity, together we can bridge the giving gap and build a better GTA.



Ene Underwood

Ene is the CEO of Habitat for Humanity GTA, which helps working families build strength, stability and self-reliance through affordable homeownership.