February/March Cover Story: Keeping control on one wild ride

Given it was the longest since records began, the deepest since the War, and that more than a few warned of the prospects of a depression, charities will be thankful for the news that the recession ended in the fourth quarter.

On the one hand, of course, the sector as a whole has been hit hard. The CAF/NCVO UK Giving Survey last September showed a slump of 11 per cent in fundraising, equating to a drop of £1.3 billion, and a survey last month for private bank Investec seemed to confirmed this, putting giving down 10 per cent.

Such a figure, well in excess of the 3.7 per cent decline in consumer spending, is genuinely shocking, says Cathy Pharoah, co-director of the ESRC Centre for Charitable Giving and Philanthropy, and it should have prompted some searching questions.

However, on the other hand, it's clear that the impact has been widely mixed. Many charities report little decline.

The Motor Neurone Disease Association is a good example. Its director of fundraising Douglas Graham is one of those who spoke at the Institute of Fundraising's conference earlier this month titled Fundraising 2010 - Ready for the Recovery?

As he explained, when the recession kicked in there was little certainty as to what the impact would be, and the charity implemented a monthly recession monitoring programme in an effort to give it an early warning of problems. It tracked indicators such as the number and success of volunteer fundraisers, unsolicited gifts, direct debits, and event sign ups.

In all these areas there was no discernible effect. As Graham puts it: "If there was an impact from the recession it was difficult to pick it out."

Likewise, at the RNID, acting head of fundraising Martin Bishop says the charity seems to have come through unscathed. "Hand on heart," he says, "I couldn't say that any areas have underperformed in a way that I could directly attribute to the recession."

In all, when CFDG and Baker Tilley asked 170 charities last October what impact they had seen, only 41 per cent reported a fall in individual giving, and just nine per cent said it was significant. A greater proportion (11 per cent) had seen a rise. For the majority there had been little effect. It's conclusion: that, at least in the short term, the sector is recession proof.

Different strokes
Part of the explanation is probably the effect of the recession on different donor segments. Margaret Bennett, director of Think Consulting Solutions, was head of individual giving at WWF in the recession in the 1990s. What she saw then seems to have been recurring this time: regular committed givers stuck with charities, while cash donations were more vulnerable. "It's a mix of impacts," she explains.

Certainly, that seems to be the case at Christian Aid. There, committed donors actually gave more over the last year (a common trait, says Bennett), while income from Christian Aid Week dropped for the first time in over a decade. It also, in line with other international NGOs suffered from the weakness of Sterling, with the pounds raised here failing to meet budgets set in other currencies.

Furthermore, experience elsewhere suggests there is little doubt that both high value donations and corporate giving have been hit hard. Those that were heavily dependent on such areas that did take a hit are likely to have seen big falls.

However, for many others, direct debit donations as well as the support available today has seen them through. "Those two factors have meant we've been able to weather this recession fairly well," argues Bennett.

In fact, given that it has forced charities to focus on their efficiency and the performance of their fundraising programmes, it might yet prove a boon in future. "In the past if something wasn't working quite as well as it could it probably went overlooked, but the recession has highlighted those areas that needed addressing," says Caroline Howe, policy manager at the Institute of Fundraising. "In the long term it has probably strengthened charities' fundraising."

A dark future
The other possible reason for the relatively benign impact many charities report is less reassuring, though: that the worst is yet to come.

PricewaterhouseCoopers, CFDG and the Institute of Fundraising's rolling review of the impact of the recession, Managing in a downturn, tracks finance and fundraising directors' perceptions and forecasts.

Its latest update, published this month, shows that charities, though not optimistic, are "less pessimistic" than six months ago, as PwC head of charities Ian Oakley-Smith puts it.

However, he himself is not convinced we'll see an improvement this year. Like others, he points to past experience that shows consumer confidence trailing up to a year behind the economic recovery. Up to now, he says, for many this has been a "phoney war". The real battle is just beginning.

Likewise at Arts & Business, which promotes private sector support for the arts, chief executive Colin Tweedy argues that it is this year that will see fundraising bottom out.

Already its figures show a drop in individual giving in arts of seven per cent for 2008/2009 -

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