Research challenge #92: how much do people give to charity?

How much do you give to charity each month? Whether you give £2, £10 or £100, I’ll wager that you have a view on what you think other people give. Equally, if you a fundraiser your analysis of your own database will mean that you probably have a good idea of what the ‘average’ donor gives. Which is all well and good, but the downside of this experiential knowledge is that you might not believe research findings on charitable giving, and in particular what the ‘average’ donor gives each month. In fact, I’ve probably heard more criticism of research on charitable giving than any other area of work I’ve been involved in whilst at NCVO.

So, just as people apparently didn’t like to admit that they voted for John Major instead of Neil Kinnock, people apparently also don’t want to admit that they don’t give, or that they only give small amounts. I’ve also been told (and on occasion lectured) that people can’t remember when or how much they gave, or that they claim the gifts of relatives as their own. Interestingly, there are sound academic arguments to support all of these points and more, but the upshot is that anyone who is so minded pretty much can (and does) rubbish most quantitative research on charitable giving. Especially if said research suggests that people give more than you do?

Why am I writing this now? Well, CAF and NCVO published our latest annual estimates of charitable giving in the UK just recently, which have followed up with a number of pieces in Professional Fundraising, the fundraising community’s journal of record. In Giving, Giving, Gone… I’ve argued that an 11% fall in total donations equates to a fall of approximately £1.3 billion in charitable income – a sum that just invites somebody to write in and highlight that their experience is completely different. Just as most of us have a distant relative who smoked 40 woodbines a day and lived to be 102, you can be pretty sure we’ll find some charities who have had a record breaking year for donations. In fact, I already know of a few. Still, things could be worse. At least we aren’t publishing research findings on why people give to charity…

But back to the ‘typical’ donor. One of the problems of illustrating ‘typical’ is that the mean average – a measure most people (and journalists) understand – isn’t a great indicator of the typical monthly donation. Similar problems dog those writing about average salaries or average house prices. Broadly speaking, most people don’t give that much (a phrase I just know will get me into trouble). Instead, it’s the small number of people giving large amounts each month that pull-up the average. The median (or mid-point) is probably a better guide to what the typical donor gives, but it’s not a measure that has the same common currency as the average.

This of course starts to matter when our analysis reports that the mean monthly donation is £31, but the median is £10. As the two figures are so far apart, there is plenty of scope for someone to think one or both numbers is hopelessly wrong. There’s an interesting campaign to be had here: just as a vast majority of motorists think they are an above-average driver (which sort of isn’t really possible), I wonder if quite a few donors might be surprised to hear that their monthly donation is probably below the average?

NB: If your anorakish tendencies are coming to the fore after reading this you might want to have a look at A Reader’s Guide to Research on Charitable Giving.

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Karl Wilding Karl Wilding served as NCVO's chief executive from September 2019 to February 2021.

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