Peter Lewis: It's time to talk about charitable giving

It’s the question we all want to know the answer to: “what’s the latest on charitable giving?”

Unfortunately, as so often, the questions that we all want to ask tend to be the hardest ones to answer. At times where charities are in the media spotlight and public eye, we want to know definitively how the stories are impacting on giving, if people are staying loyal and committed to the causes they support, or whether there’s been a change in giving habits.

The problem is that the best research and data sets that we get on the overall amount of money raised will always come a little later. The comprehensive and authoritative Civil Society Almanac by NCVO is the ‘go-to’ of the best overall figures for the sector, but because of how it’s put together it will always be retrospective rather than real time – it’s likely that we will only finally see the overall picture of the last financial year in 2020.

However, over the last month or so there have been some research and reports, as well as anecdotal evidence, which help us fill in the picture a little more. While none on their own are completely definitive, by looking at them together we can get a sense of how things are looking for the sector.

The headline from CAF’s UK Giving 2018, which is now a much more robust set of individual survey data, shows a relatively stable picture for fundraising – it estimates that the total amount given to charity in 2017 increased to £10.3 billion. The survey results suggest there was a bit of a dip in the number of people giving (primarily a predicted decline in sponsorship), but that those who were giving donated slightly higher amounts.

Alongside this, the Charity Income Spotlight from Charity Financials indicates that for 2016-17 charity sector income grew by around £4 billion to over £75bn overall, with a rise in both voluntary income and fundraising trading from the top 5,000 charities. However, while the larger charities generated a substantial surplus, there are some concerning signs for smaller charities, with many of them spending more on charitable activities than they are generating in income – meaning they are spending down reserves.

Questions on giving are often accompanied by ones of trust, because while we often have to wait to see how the figures have changed, it’s much easier to get a real time snapshot view from the public on their feelings of trust and confidence. The latest data here, I think, would give me cautious optimism.

CAF’s monthly tracker shows that while the charity sector dominated the news agenda over February, levels of trust in the sector remained consistent. nfpSynergy’s latest polling on trust shows a drop of 6 points since last Autumn, but that is possibly a smaller fall than might have been anticipated given the amount of media coverage, and was quite specific to the international aid sector, with other parts of the sector largely unaffected.

And I still stick to my personal view, based on both experience and the academic work of Baroness O’Nora O’Neill (check out her TED talk on trust) that a donor/charity relationship is fundamentally bilateral, and that general levels of trust and confidence in charities as a group has only a marginal, if any, impact on the giving patterns as a whole.

Oxfam may understandably have lost the support of some of its supporters, but I remain to be convinced that there has been, or will be, much of an impact on giving to other charities around the UK.

So, what does looking at this latest research tell us? I think there are probably three main points. Firstly, the sector overall looks relatively stable overall – but of course with variations across the piece. The growth, where there is growth, is mainly in larger charities, with smaller organisations more likely to be feeling the pinch.

Secondly, we should celebrate that the strong relationships charities build through great fundraising for specific causes means that when there are negative stories in the press around charities as a whole, individual charities have strong relationships to rely on (though of course, we must never be complacent and always see where we can do more).

And finally, the thing that has always remained true, people continue to care about causes, and when we reach them through excellent communication about our work and its impact, they will continue to be generous.

Paul Lewis is chief executive at the Institute of Fundraising.

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