Editorial: A look at the past shapes the future

A new report on household giving contains valuable information about trends that could help formulate future strategies, says Stephen Cook

Stephen Cook, editor
Stephen Cook, editor

The new study by a group of academics of 30 years of household giving contains both good and bad news for charities.

The good news is that a decline in the proportion of households that give stopped falling in 2000 and has now stabilised; the amount given has roughly kept pace with the rise in national wealth; and giving has held up well in recessions.

Less encouraging, however, is that the tax incentives of Gift Aid and the increased effort put into fundraising over the period from 1978 to 2008 have not produced an increase in the proportion of our spending that goes to charities, and that giving has largely held up only because the increasingly elderly baby boomer generation and better-off donors have been donating more.

The report casts a shadow over Funding the Future, the NCVO document at the end of last year that proposed a target of doubling individual giving by 2020. If giving has done little more than bump along during the boom time of the early noughties, a proposal to lift it in the gloom time that stretches some years ahead from us now seems somewhat daunting.

Its conclusions also raise questions about the Giving Green Paper - the recent set of government proposals for changing the culture so that giving becomes the social norm. Every government in the 30-year period covered by the report has promulgated something similar, but without marked success - in the 80s, a programme of 'active citizenship' was rolled out by Douglas (now Lord) Hurd, father of Nick, the current charities minister. We know from experience how difficult it is to push giving higher up our list of mental priorities in life.

There is a tendency among some practical fundraisers to sniff at this kind of research and ask why academics aren't coming up instead with new ideas for persuading people to give. But this report contains valuable information about verified trends in giving that could help them to shape future strategies that rely less on formulae that may not work for much longer.

See Analysis of report

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