Comment: The public's love/hate for big charities and the danger of complacency

Figures seem to suggest that while people like the idea of small charities they give to the big, but is that the whole picture, asks our columnist

Matthew Sherrington
Matthew Sherrington

So, it’s all the fault of the big charities. At last week’s BOND Conference for international development organisations, specially commissioned research from YouGov laid this out, confirming recent research done for NCVO. People don’t like the Big Boys.

41% of people said they preferred "smaller charities because they spend less money on staff, campaigning and advertising and are closer to the people they help". That’s four times the number who said they preferred "larger charities because more resources mean they have a wider reach, are better organised and have a larger voice so are able to have more impact".

Perhaps that’s no surprise given the vast majority – 83% in fact – of the UK’s 160,000 charities are micro, small and local.

Yet, House of Commons statistics show that just 1% of charities account for 70% of the charity sector economy. And NCVO’s Almanac data shows that those 83% of micro and small charities – 133,000 of them – get just 5% of publicly donated funds. Meanwhile, the 577 major charities (0.4% of the total number) receive a full half of all publicly donated funds.

This would seem to suggest that while people like the idea of the small, they give to the big. Is it that more people, in the end, are concerned about and drawn to the bigger issues and the bigger charities that deal with them? Probably. There is something of a democratic market that goes with charitable giving. Money flows to the things people are most concerned about. Big charities are big because people’s giving has made them so.

Is it that bigger charities have the profile and resources to fundraise more effectively? Well that’s self-evidently true.  But it speaks to two other uncomfortable truths. One is that people need to be asked, though they don’t think they do, and don’t like it when they are. And those who do the asking get the money. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t, because without money you can’t do much for your mission. The second truth is that smaller charities are being somewhat disingenuous in complaining about the large. It’s hardly unfair if that’s where people choose to put their money.

Yes, some fundraising practice has got out of hand. No doubt some charities are experiencing some squeeze in their income. But overall, public contributions to the UK’s charities have grown by £500 million in the last couple of years (just as £2.5 billion was cut away from government funding). Perhaps therein lies part of why people feel fundraising has got too aggressive. But wouldn’t small charities do more fundraising if they had more resources to invest in doing so? Of course they would.

Which brings us to the conclusion that people aren’t lying when they say one thing and do another. No, people are doing one thing in spite of thinking another. What doesn’t sit well with people is not necessarily the idea of size, but the corporatism and dissonance with values that has developed with size.

The danger for big charities here is complacency. There’s a danger of conflating the hostile political environment (which is real enough) with media attacks on poor fundraising and perceived breaches of their values (which are fair enough), and dismissing them. Just because you think your donors don’t read the negative press and you don’t see it affecting your income, doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter.

People might be disappointed with their charity supporter experience, but on the whole believe in the greater good of giving, and let trust in that override the petty irritation of their experience.  Trust in charities has definitely taken a knock, but as the BOND/YouGov survey made clear, it remains high at 60%, only behind the military and police, and still streets ahead of anyone else. To enjoy a moment of schadenfreude, only 10% of the public trusts the tabloids.

Supporters say they want more transparency. They might, though there’s a lot of information already available if people wanted to look. They don’t, though. This is largely a proxy for trust. Years ago the difference between trust and confidence was well understood – rational information building confidence, in the absence, and sometimes to the detriment, of trust, which ultimately is emotional blind faith.

Whatever rationalisations we might use to reassure ourselves all is well in our world, the reality is that large charities have allowed their institutional ego to distance themselves from their public constituency. They have taken people for granted, seeing fundraising for the money and not the supporters. Fundraisers have justified their activity for the cause, pressured to deliver returns, and learnt that supporters have a high tolerance for low expectations.

That’s the chicken that’s coming home to roost. Irritation with a poor experience is out in the open, and people may not put up with it any more.  They might, of course, because their charity is bigger than your charity, the organisation. But do you want to take that chance?

Matthew Sherrington is a charity leadership and communications consultant at Inspiring Action. @m_sherrington

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