Are fewer people supporting charities?

A report published today suggests that a smaller proportion of the population are giving to charity. UK Giving 2019, published by the Charities Aid Foundation (CAF), suggests that the proportion of adults giving to charity has fallen from 69% of the population to 65% in three years. The survey also reports that less than half of the population (48%) say that charities are trustworthy.

Charitable giving coverage in The Times

News coverage and opinion pieces in the Times and the Guardian have already, inevitably, linked the two: fewer people are giving because they no longer trust charities. And charities have not responded to public concerns about the way that they operate, failing to sufficiently reform fundraising, senior staff remuneration levels or address public concerns over safeguarding. Is there a link between falling trust and support for charities? And should we be worried, as CAF suggests we should be?

Charitable giving – opinion piece, The Times

The way people support the causes they believe in is changing

We’ve known for some time that charities have become more dependent upon a smaller proportion of the population who are more committed to the cause. Our reliance on the so-called ‘civic core’ of people who give a disproportionately large share of the total amount of money given and the total number of hours volunteered is a long-term trend. It pre-dates any of the recent issues about trust.

So new data that shows a falling proportion of the population donating is not a surprise – it’s what might be called a long-term secular decline, albeit one that has been hastened somewhat in the last couple of years by the introduction of GDPR. I wouldn’t underestimate how important this might be in driving the change that we are seeing. Charities everywhere have done a huge amount of work to clean and update their supporters databases, with occasional or lapsed donors the supporters most likely to have been removed. I’m surprised that the proportion of people giving to charity hasn’t fallen much more – all the evidence I have ever seen suggests that nearly all charitable giving follows someone being asked. Charities are asking less – and I would add that they are asking better. So, fewer people giving larger amounts seems like a rational response.

That doesn’t mean to say that it’s not worrying. If it means that people are less supportive of good causes then that is clearly a worry. It could be argued that a smaller number of more supportive donors are taking up the slack. But there is an emerging global backlash, emanating from a US-centric debate on philanthropy, that is arguing strongly against the power and influence of major philanthropists (and their priorities) on public life – that’s for another blog. There is also a concern that the proportion of people giving to charity is a signal of our legitimacy, our licence to operate. Fewer people giving might indicate that charities are not perceived as legitimate means to solve society’s problems, and this might then shape the decisions of people as to whether they should support charity – a negative feedback loop.

Giving isn’t the only way to support a good cause.

Again, we need to reflect on some broader trends. People are choosing to support the causes that they believe in in different ways, no longer just giving and volunteering in ways we or our parents might have envisaged. Just as there are alternatives to shopping on the high street, or cash donations, there are quite simply more alternatives to giving to charity: for example, the market for ethical goods and services has grown rapidly over the last two decades, while charitable giving has been relatively stable. More recently, the rise of fundraising platforms and individuals asking directly for support – the GoFundMe generation – has in some cases removed the role of charities as an intermediary, trusted or otherwise. But before we see these as signs that charities or other organisations established for the public benefit are no longer relevant or legitimate, we might consider that the number of charities continues to grow. The charity model is, I believe, still trusted. It was only last year that CAF reported that nine in ten UK households have used a charity at some point – whether for practical advice, art or leisure – and 74% had done so in the previous twelve months alone.

We should continue to focus on the issues that drive trust in charities

None of this is intended to be complacent in any way. There are substantial challenges facing the future of our sector, not least of which is how we remain relevant to the way people want to support the causes they believe in. Simply blaming a fall in public trust won’t do, particularly given the problems of using public trust as an indicator of how people behave. It’s also arguably an issue that is probably irrelevant to many smaller charities. There’s another structural change story here too, about how people might be shifting away from supporting large charities to smaller, more local organisations.

We can instead continue to focus on the issues that drive public dissatisfaction and implement the changes that people want to see: more openness and transparency so that people better understand how and why we make decisions; fundraising and supporter engagement and experience that inspires and thanks, rather than leaving people feel like they have had a poor experience; and the highest ethical standards, so that people feel that we do good in a way that fits with their values. Charities have made much progress on these issues recently. There is more to do.

At NCVO’s Annual Conference, we discussed these and other challenges facing charities in a discussion about the future of fundraising. An important message was that the current generation want to change the world as much as any previous generation, but we as charities have to show them that we are the best way for them to achieve their goals. So just as Extinction Rebellion is a powerful mechanism for those who care about climate and the environment, if we want more people to support charities, our biggest challenge in the future is still to show that we are the most ethical, relevant and effective way of changing the world.


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

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