Cathy Pharoah: Data on giving should be improved, not abandoned

It's a sad reflection on the UK's voluntary sector that the only alternative to the inadequate UK Giving survey is no survey at all, writes our columnist

As a world leader in philanthropy, the UK should have a world-leading set of data, writes Cathy Pharoah
As a world leader in philanthropy, the UK should have a world-leading set of data, writes Cathy Pharoah

Ending the UK Giving survey is the right decision, but has been made, sadly, for the wrong reasons.

The limitations of the survey’s sample size and structure mean it is not able to track annual giving trends with any accuracy. The whole exercise needs more investment than its sponsors, the Charities Aid Foundation and the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, have been able to make. But it's a sad reflection on the sector that the only alternative to a poor giving survey is no survey at all.

In an age of big data, it’s incomprehensible that the UK, a world leader in promoting philanthropy, does not have world-leading survey of giving – particularly in a funding environment where everyone from government onwards is looking to philanthropy to fill gaps in funding. It is a backward step. Research on giving is an area where the sector and its various stakeholders have consistently failed to come together.

Of course, no single survey will tell us all we need to know about giving, but a sizeable, well-designed general public survey represents a major building block. Gaps around, for example, major giving probably have to be plugged with booster surveys and/or triangulation of data from other sources, such as HM Revenue & Customs. This is the kind of research initiative that the sector and its stakeholders should have been taking forward together over the past few years.

The fundamental problem is that giving surveys are seen so often mainly as an opportunity for PR. The row over last year's giving report was not about its methodology, but the way its results were (mis)represented. It won't help the sector if misleading annual reports are now replaced by quarterly ones. In fact, it would be better to have fewer, better surveys, once every two or three years, than frequent reports whose trends reflect little more than normal statistical variations and which stretch resources very thinly.

Thousands of pounds are devoted to fragmented and piecemeal surveys of giving in the UK every year. The collective data and experience which CAF and the NCVO have built up over the years should be progressed, not abandoned. The ending of the UK Giving survey provides the perfect opportunity for a sector-wide review of knowledge and research on the ‘state of giving’, for looking at opportunities such as open data access and big data, and how the sector could work together to understand key trends in the UK’s philanthropy.

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