Comment: Let's have better research on charities

Many conclusions can be drawn from the latest annual report by the Charities Aid Foundation and the NCVO.

Nick Seddon
Nick Seddon

UK Giving finds that fewer people are giving to charity and total donations are down three percentage points from the previous year to £9.5bn in 2006/07. You could blame rising house prices and interest rates, or dismiss it as just one point on a trend line - but what's to say the cause is not that the public is losing faith in charities?

There's even the odd snippet of evidence to support such a conjecture. When the Third Sector/npfSynergy report The State of the Third Sector 2007 asked about the attributes of the 'ideal' charity, an undefined sample of the general public put 'trustworthy' top, whereas charities put 'trustworthy' bottom. Oh dear. In the same study, 92 per cent of charities complained that the public didn't understand how modern charities work. The truth is that charities don't know much about what the public thinks either.

What else don't we know? It's frequently asserted that users don't care who's providing a service, so long as it's good - but how can we be so sure? Isn't that inconsistent with the claim often made by advocates of statutory service delivery, that charities should deliver services for the state precisely because users don't want to deal with official state departments? Would users mind if services provided by charities were paid for by the state?

So much talk about charities is a piecemeal amalgam of iffy surveys, straw polls and dinner table chit-chat. Yet the Rolls Royce of surveys, the British Social Attitudes Survey, found in 2005 that people believe the private sector is best at running good-quality cost-effective services, while government is best at making sure services go to those who need them most. If they have opinions about the private and public sectors, it would be astonishing if the public were indifferent to the third sector.

Someone - the Centre for Charitable Research and Philanthropy? - should petition the BSAS to carry a question about charities. "There are many things I know which are not verifiable," says Tom Stoppard's academic philosopher in his play Jumpers, "but nobody can tell me I don't know them." Isn't it time charities stopped talking like that?

- Nick Seddon is an author and journalist: 

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