Beth Breeze: We're doing better than the US for million-pound donors

The decline in the headline figure from research published this week does not tell the full story, says the University of Kent academic who put the report together

Beth Breeze, author of the paper
Beth Breeze, author of the paper

There’s only one question on people’s lips when we launch each new edition of the annual Million Pound Donors Report: "Who are they?" Instead of a 30-page document full of statistics and stories about mega-giving, we’d get a much better reception if we just distributed a piece of A4 listing names and addresses.

But this is research, not prospect research, and there’s a significant difference between the two, which I have written about elsewhere in Third Sector. The purpose of the Million Pound Donors Report is to shine a light on the scale, scope and importance of giving at this level and to lift the lid on the experience of both making and receiving seven (or more)-figure gifts.

The 2011 report is the fourth edition, in which, yet again, we describe and discuss all that we have been able to discover about charitable donations worth £1m or more that were made by UK donors or given to UK charities in the preceding financial year.

We always begin the report by admitting up front that we’re sure to have missed some of these biggest donations and that our data is likely to underestimate the true value of this largest level of philanthropy. No one has a duty to report their involvement in a million-pound charitable transaction, and they can be tricky to track down if they’re made anonymously, or have not appeared in an identifiable form on the public record.

Nor does our report include very big donations that fall below the lower threshold of £1m, so we cannot claim to capture all instances of significant giving because gifts of between £10,000 and £999,999 are still of great importance to the causes they benefit. But we do maintain that million-pound donations remain a useful unit of analysis because, to borrow the phrase of a donor mentioned in the 2011 report, giving a "one-er" is economically, culturally and psychologically significant to all concerned. It is the size of gift that establishes a donor among the top rank of UK philanthropists.

This year’s report, which covers gifts made in 2009/10, finds that this top rank is somewhat depleted. There were decreases in both the number of separate occasions on which million-pound donations were made (we found 174, compared with 201 the previous year) and in the cumulative value of these donations, which were worth £1.312bn, compared with £1.548bn for the preceding 12-month period.

In other respects the data shows remarkable stability – higher education continues to be the favoured cause, almost half (44 per cent) are worth under £2m, just 10 per cent are worth £10m or more, and a larger fraction (52 per cent) is ‘banked’ into charitable trusts or foundations for distribution at a later date, rather than given directly to front-line or operational charities for spending in the nearer future.

But we know that most coverage of the report is likely to be dominated by the change (for which read "decline") in the headline figures, despite our efforts to emphasise that it’s not sensible to read too much into the year-on-year trends in a dataset of this size. If you don’t believe us, then we quote data guru Karl Wilding, head of research at the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, who says: "They say that one swallow doesn’t make a summer, and it’s also true that one data point does not make a trend. The ups and downs in the number and value of million-pound donations looks to me like the sort of natural undulation you would expect to find in this sort of dataset."

So what is the big story in the 2011 report if it doesn’t reveal new names for fundraisers to pursue, nor offer a tale of doom and decline? I believe that the comparison with major giving in the US is the most interesting angle to emerge. The Million Dollar List (now freely available on a swanky website) charts gifts of $1m-plus by calendar year, and finds a fall from $12.87bn in 2008 to $4.97bn in 2009 and $4.44bn in 2010. That drop of more than half far outstrips the UK’s dip of 15 per cent – which is surely good news for a country that constantly compares itself unfavourably to the philanthropy of our transatlantic cousins.

The whole 2011 report is available on the University of Kent website  – please take a look, let us know what you think and feel free to give us feedback so we can improve the 2012 edition.

Beth Breeze is a researcher at the Centre for Philanthropy, Humanitarianism and Social Justice at the University of Kent

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