Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Charity begins...

I just heard on Radio 4 that the BBC appeal at Xmas last year, with St Martin's, raised more money than ever before. And Comic Relief raised record amounts - when we are in the midst of a very difficult economic period (with a further recession predicted).

So are people giving more, even though funds are tighter and the cost of living is rising in excess of most peoples' pay rises (if they are lucky enough to have one)?

I'm not sure. I think people are still giving, but giving more selectively. Third Sector magazine, which reports on the not for profit world, says that anecdotally that 'people are saying that things are getting tougher' (which is really no surprise). The UK's largest fundraising charity this year has reported a fall in voluntary income.   So how do we match record figures for appeals like Comic Relief against falling income for many charities?

In recent years we have had some awful international disasters - floods, famine, tsunamis... and the great British public has responded generously and speedily.  I personally think that people like to give to something they feel they can make a difference to now. Investing in medical research, conservation or third world development has tremendous long term impact, but it's the emotive 'quick fix' fundraising appeal that is giving people the feeling they want when they give. Our instant gratification society - something will happen, quickly, as a result of their gift:

My £2 a month will feed that dog. My £20 now will provide a tent and clean water for the refugees from the flood.  My £5 will buy a goat for a farmer in Africa.

So how does Comic Relief fit in? In this case, I feel it's about the ask being immediate. We are doing it 'once', and 'now', and responding to emotive issues within the context of entertainment and appeals from those who command our respect (well, so I understand celebrity appeal to be, though it's not what floats my boat).

Comic Relief is a 'quick fix' charity ask. The quickness being that it is a very time limited appeal (though fundraising goes on all year, it does have this one day annual highlight), and that the maximum interaction with donors and supporters is focused around a short time period.

So are people giving more, or not giving more? Are people cutting their charitable giving, or not?  In recent months charities have seen a decline in direct debit giving, probably a result of financial reviewing as times get harder.  Rather than have an automatic gift going out each month to one or more charities, individuals are giving as and when the appeal appeals to them. The 'now'.

The other main reason that some charities may actually be growing in income (the smaller ones are benefiting more than the larger ones), is association. Direct association with a cause will give you dedicated, long-term supporters who will continue to support your cause even during difficult times. Whether the association is through experience (for example, a disease or condition) or a passion (eg conservation or education), the stronger someone feels about something, the more likely they are to continue their support even when it is financially challenging.

So who is giving? Are the rich rallying round in these tough times and supporting charities more? Especially given the tax breaks that high earners get by donating to charity?

Interestingly, it is those with lower incomes who give the most (percentage wise) of what they earn to charities. These people are probably those who watch Comic Relief, and receive appeals from charities through the post on a regular basis.

The other area where charitable giving is getting stronger is through active and challenge fundraising. For example, doing a charity parachute jump, a walk, marathon or mountain climb. The strength of appeal in this area is that the individual gets something for their efforts (realisation of an ambition or meeting a personal challenge) and they can engage supporters around them to contribute without any further expectation from them. It's easy to donate to a friend doing an event - you just sponsor them, give them the money. You don't even have to engage with the charity that is being supported, just with your friend the fundraiser.  Given these hard times, I can see the logic for this mode of fundraising to be increasing in popularity. Everyone is a winner (in most cases!).

There are 161,669 charities registered in England. What do you support? Who do you support - a charity in your neighbourhood, or a cause you believe in? Something that you have a long term commitment to, or do you just respond as and when asked?

These are just my thoughts, from both working in the sector and as a donor myself.  I would like to know what you think.

Useful links:

Third Sector
Charities Commission
Comic Relief
The Big Give - make your donation to charity worth double
Charity Challenges (one of the many companies)
Chronicle of Philanthropy - what happens in the US usually follows on in the UK

Photograph courtesy of Alzheimer's Research UK

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