As the value of incomes, property and pensions declines, the one value to which charities can uniquely lay claim is the gift. But even that is tarnished: 'gifts' by individuals to Pargav, which funded Liam's Fox's associate Adam Werritty, were for purposes apparently closely related to business interests; after the recent court ruling, public schools can define public benefit in any terms that suit them; and "donor preference" is the new catchphrase in fundraising.
There's a danger the public will become cynical about the whole concept of giving unless the focus of a charitable gift shifts away from the donors' values, preferences and 'passions', back towards the recipients.
It seems ironic that, as growing unemployment and homelessness and falling benefits provide daily evidence of rising need, attention has shifted towards gifts as consumer goods. There is, of course, a self-interested element in giving. It is one reason for the appeal of cancer charities, an appeal likely to grow as changing demographics and patterns of disease mean ever more people will get cancer. The Giving White Paper emphasised this aspect, claiming that "giving is good for both the givers and those they help".
But treating this as a selling point for giving might be self-defeating if giving becomes no more than another consumer good. Charitable giving has to remain essentially about others' needs. The London Evening Standard's Dispossessed Fund provided a spectacular example of this, starting from stories of individual need so simple and basic that they almost defied belief. The newspaper claimed: "In the richest capital in Europe, almost half our children live below the poverty line. These dispossessed are cut off from the life most Londoners take for granted."
The Disasters Emergency Committee's recent success in raising £72m in 100 days for famine victims in east Africa provides another example of how a combined, forceful and immediate effort to portray needs can have an enormous effect on donors. Giving data shows the strong substitution effects of major appeals on other forms of giving, because they do not raise the total amount of gifts in the long term. Giving to DEC represented 3 per cent of the public's daily donations in those 100 days.
The challenge is to convert temporary perceptions of needs into long-term commitments to addressing them. Research suggests that awareness of need makes us give to others, but the objective facts of need are far from being the only factors influencing donations. Subjective perception of need and, most importantly, knowledge of the individual people affected, or others like them, hugely influences our giving. The closer we are to a need, the more likely we are to give to it. This is why increasing the numbers of wealthy people who give to the poor is an enormous challenge, and why charities need to be clear about the nature of a charitable gift.
Cathy Pharoah is professor of charity funding at Cass Business School