Charitable giving and young people: the kids are alright

I’m sure by now that if you have any interest in charitable giving and fundraising you will have seen the many news articles published as a result of CAF’s report on young people and giving, The Generation Gap. Coverage has centred upon the finding that ‘young people are giving less’ (of which more in a moment) and the policy recommendations regarding what we do about this.

I’ve been meaning to blog about this for a bit – I think it’s one of the most interesting reports on giving I’ve read for some time (congratulations CAF)…and I am reading a few as we prepare to launch UK Giving 2012. And who better to prompt me than The Who – whose anthem for 60s Mod culture, The Kids Are Alright, came to the top of the iTunes shuffle pile on a train journey home from Blackburn. So, are the kids alright when it comes to charitable giving?

The report is interesting because, towards the end, it tries to answer a question I am asked with regularity. Let me explain. Any recent survey of the population would almost undoubtedly show that charitable giving is less likely amongst young people than middle aged or older people; and that young people give less, in absolute terms and as a proportion of their income. (Or as Tom Levitt said to me today: young people give time, older people give money.)

The question that follows is: was it ever thus? Or does the current generation (or cohort) give less at this stage in their life than previous generations – with the implicit concern that they will give less when they get older? In other words, are we bringing up a generation that have lost the giving habit?

There are two measures we look at: the participation rate (what proportion of households give) and generosity (how much is given, as a proportion of household spending). Each line refers to the decade in which that group were born. The participation rate chart shows that those born in the 1940s – today’s septuagenarians – were the first cohort of households less likely to give. This trend continued – each successive cohort looks to be giving less at each age. It is notable though that the participation rate for those in their 20s increases as they age. The generosity chart tells a similar story, although the decline in generosity began with those born in the 1950s.


Source: CAF – The Generation Gap

So – if I understand this report correctly – it’s not so much that the current generation of young people (those in their 20s) are giving less than previous generations did at the same point in their life. The problem is that every generation in the post war period has given less than those who were born before World War II.

That’s you and me. And depending upon your age (I’m 41), your parents. Which makes me wonder if the post-war baby boom – and the resultant demographic bulge – has meant that the simple maths of more people living in the UK disguised a falling off in generosity?

And if all those born since the 1950s are giving less than their counterparts born in previous decades, does this mean they are inherently less interested in doing good? Or is something else going on? We are clearly in the realms of hypothesis here, and quite possibly cod psychology. In the last few weeks I’ve heard every explanation, from the over-professionalisation of fundraising (which this brilliant blog from Mark Phillips is relevant to), to the increasing individualisation of society. Government matters too: those growing up in the newly minted welfare state may have been disincentived to give; more recently, the financial demands of a society where the state is gradually transferring risk and responsibility to individuals peversely provides the same disincentive.

I’m personally attracted by the explanation that the ways to ‘do good’ have expanded significantly, and we should move on from talk of giving and volunteering to participation and social action: for example, whilst giving has been static, sales of ethical goods have quadrupled. We’ve explored these issues in NCVO’s Participation Almanac. Conversely, a similar cohort analysis of levels of membership in voluntary organisations might suggest I am wrong: when combined with the giving analysis, we have a problem. Either way, these are important questions and the report does well to highlight the need to try and test these (and other) explanations – rather than rely upon the so-called insights of pub bores.

But back to the kids. For me, one of the messages in the report is that we should be optimistic. It shows that their propensity to give increases as young people navigate their 20s. It makes me think that the wealth of initiatives aimed at young people in recent years, such as citizenship education and the Citizenship Foundation’s G-Nation have made a difference. Initiatives that make giving easy, using the everyman tool of Generation Y (the smartphone) will help. I’m sure the work being led by Dame Julia Cleverdon and Amanda Jordan on a ‘decade of social action’ will also help. And young people are doing good now. The examples are too numerous to list – whether as Young Charity Trustees, fundraisers or donors in their own right.

I wonder if instead of looking at young people, we should be looking at ourselves, and for my age group, our parents. Is problematizing young people and giving a displacement activity, drawing attention away from the massive wealth accumulated by the Baby Boomers, a point well-argued by David Willetts? Maybe. In the meantime, back to the words of The Who’s Pete Townshend, who recently added an extra verse to the live version of The Kids are Alright:

And I look at my kids, and they’re alright

Of course they’re alright

What can ever be wrong with kids?

Nothing wrong with my kids

Nothing wrong with your kids.

(Thanks to Alex Swallow of Young Charity Trustees for commenting on a draft of this post. And to Toby Blume for highlighting a crucial misspelling…)

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

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