The fundraising academic and consultant Adrian Sargeant has called for a report by the charity research specialist New Philanthropy Capital about donor motivation and behaviour to be withdrawn because it could be "immensely damaging" to charities.
The report, Money for Good, is based on a survey of 3,000 adults and additional interviews about people’s giving habits. It suggests that charities are missing out on an estimated £665m because they are failing to offer potential donors the information they are interested in.
In a blog for the Institute of Fundraising, published on Friday, Sargeant, professor of marketing and fundraising at the University of Plymouth, wrote: "It fails to add in any way to our knowledge of either topic and worse, provides ‘information’ that could be immensely damaging to the very charities they profess to be trying to help."
The study "suffers from almost complete lack of any theoretical underpinning", either in the design of the questionnaire or the way the results have been interpreted, he said.
Robert Abercrombie, director of research and consulting at NPC and co-author of Money for Good, responded in a blog today that Sargeant was "an interesting thinker in the fundraising area and we share many objectives. But in this case I think his criticisms are misplaced and his concerns about the methodological approach colours his view of the whole project."
Sargeant criticised some sections of the questionnaire as being "as much as 50 years behind current thinking" and, as a consequence, the report tells us "nothing that we didn’t already know and offers nothing by way of an insight into how to target the higher value donors who form the core of the focus of this report".
He labelled the report "a weak piece of work" and went on to condemn the state of research on fundraising and giving more generally, saying it is in need of shake-up.
"The fundraising sector is perceived as so easy to understand that those with no knowledge of it are deemed fit to conduct research so long as they are supported by an appropriate advisory board of long-standing sector folk," he wrote.
Money for Good’s advisory group included Beth Breeze, from the Centre for the Study of Philanthropy at the University of Kent, Richard Harrison, director of research at the Charities Aid Foundation, and Cathy Pharoah, from the Centre for Charitable Giving and Philanthropy at Cass Business School.
Sargeant said specialist researchers should be used rather than boards of this kind. "If we begin to employ subject specialists (do I really need to make that argument?) we might begin to generate high-quality research that would genuinely grow participation in giving, enhance the experience of our donors and begin to develop the quality and substance of philanthropy in the UK," he wrote.
He made a number of criticisms specifically about the NPC report, saying the "weakest section" is about the segments that identify types of UK donors and their motivation for giving.
"Rather than focus their segmentation on certain beliefs, attitudes or behaviours and then explore the relationship with giving, everything seems to have been bundled in together," wrote Sargeant.
He added that the report contains a number of "sweeping generalisations" that could be harmful if taken up by smaller charities. He said that some of the fundraising advice offered in the report could reduce giving to a specific appeal by as much as 75 per cent.
In his blog responding to Sargeant’s criticisms, Abercrombie said: "Sargeant expresses concern about the ‘lack of theoretical underpinnings’ and points to four different theories, none of which were ‘tested in their entirety’. But the point of the research is to show that different donors behave in different ways that no universal model or theory can explain."
Abercrombie added that it is not clear why Sargeant thinks that the sector will be so damaged by the report. "In particular, we are puzzled by his point that charities that followed the recommendations could ‘conceivably reduce giving to a specific appeal by as much as 75 per cent’. Since we make no specific recommendations that charities are expected to follow uncritically in the report, we are unsure what basis Sargeant could have for calculating such a figure."
Abercrombie said that Money for Good UK offered valuable and new insights, and provided a strong starting point for the essential next phase of work.