Learning to give: the importance of engaging children’s voices in giving

Alison Body lectures and researches with the Centre for Philanthropy, at the University of Kent. A practitioner by background, she has previously worked in senior management positions across the voluntary and public sector, including positions of fundraising, commissioning and strategic development. Her research focuses on children and charities; including how children learn to give, commissioning of children’s services and voluntary action in education.

Along with co-authors Emily Lau (Canterbrury Christ Church University) and Jo Josephidou (Open University), she was awarded the 2019 Campbell Adamson Memorial Prize at the NCVO and VSSN Voluntary Sector and Volunteering Research Conference in September this year.

From dressing up for Children in Need, donning a red nose for Comic Relief or donating food for the Harvest Festival, it seems our children are continuously involved in charitable giving for one cause or another. Nonetheless, while there are a plethora of more formal programmes, such as #iwill and the National Citizen Service, developed to engage older young people in voluntary action, research and practice has paid significantly less attention to younger children.

This is what led us to our latest research (Body et al., 2019), exploring the experiences of charitable giving of 150 children, aged 4-8 years old through in-depth, participatory action research. We wanted to understand their experiences of giving.

Children value charity

In many ways our research is a cause for celebration. Children as young as four have clear and strong ideas about charity and recognise it as an important social good in our society. However, while much of the sector-wide discussions on charity focus on how to get more people to give more time and money more frequently, our research shows children take a slightly different view.

They instead focus on acts of everyday kindness, viewing charity as much more than donations of money or time. For them it is an embodiment of a set of behaviours, actions and values that are rooted in ideas of fairness and empathy, the building blocks of social justice and democracy.

Children are often passive in their giving experiences 

Our research highlights that while younger children may be involved in many forms of fundraising and voluntary action, they are rarely given the opportunities or autonomy to discuss which causes they support, how they support those causes and why.

Instead, all too often, adults impose decisions upon children, with little discussion with children about what the causes are or why they need support. While all the children could identify fundraising and volunteering activities they had taken part in, fewer than half knew what cause they were supporting and fewer than 20% had had any say in their giving. 

Teaching charity as a transactional process

Where a reason for giving was not shared with children or indeed where it did not come from children themselves, a void was created about ‘why’ they give. As a result, charity was commonly discussed amongst the children as a transactional process, where giving is closely tied to what the individual receives in return. For example, associating giving money to charity with dressing up in “funny clothes” or “getting a treat”.

Our research suggests this was the common experience for children. By establishing this as the giving ‘norm’ for children we prevent them from engaging in and learning about the cause areas which sit behind their charitable giving. Taking such an approach under-estimates young children’s capability to actively and critically engage in social issues.

Helping children learn to give

This isn’t to say children engaging in charitable activities shouldn’t have fun, and indeed events which engage children for the likes of Children in Need and Comic Relief raise valuable funds which are distributed to many worthy causes. Voluntary action, from fundraising to volunteering to social action, should be enjoyable and engaging for children, but we argue it should also be meaningful. As a sector we need to stop overlooking younger children’s voices and instead engage them as partners, capable of engaging in complex issues in appropriate ways and important social actors in shaping a fairer civil society.

And there are some great examples available of organisations already doing this, such as the RSA4 Primary Youth Action programme[1], where young children research and lead on their giving decisions and social action with individual and community wide benefits.

Charities should encourage parents or teachers to engage children in meaningful conversations about their giving, conversations which are so vital in helping children reflect on their values and the importance of generosity to others. When children are meaningfully engaged in giving decisions, investigate their own causes to support and critically engage with that cause, not only do their efforts increase in supporting that cause, but their propensity and willingness to engage in the future increases.


Body, A., Lau., E. & Josephidou, J. 2019. Our Charitable Children: Engaging Children in Charities and Charitable Giving. University of Kent. Available at https://research.kent.ac.uk/philanthropy/wp-content/uploads/sites/225/2019/03/our-charitable-children-research-report.pdf

Power, S. and Smith, K., (2016) Giving, saving, spending: what would children do with£ 1 million?. Children & Society, 30(3), pp.192-203.

[1] https://www.thersa.org/action-and-research/rsa-projects/creative-learning-and-development-folder/primary-social-action

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