Cathy Pharoah: We need a rational public debate about cost-effective donation

The transaction costs charities incur on all methods of fundraising is the elephant in the room and needs to be addressed, says our columnist

Cathy Pharoah
Cathy Pharoah

There is a familiar elephant in the room among the reactions to the withdrawal of charity credit cards by Lloyds Banking Group. The vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on cancer condemned its timing as insensitive "given all the furore around bank bonuses". Perhaps it's just me, but I fail to see any meaningful link between the total of £14m raised over a period of 23 years for Cancer Research UK through the cards and the £14bn paid out in one year in City bonuses in 2011.

Far from supporting the case for cards, the surreal discrepancy between card revenue and the level of bonuses makes a nonsense of it: the only sensible thing for a caring bank to do was scrap the scheme in favour of something better. The cards did not even attract tax relief to boost the donation of between 0.25 and 0.5 per cent of the sum spent in a transaction. And that, of course, is the elephant in the room - the transaction costs charities incur on all methods of fundraising.

The charity credit card was not cost-effective, but that did not prevent the general public - despite a concern about the proportion of a donation spent on administration rather than the charity's activities - from seeing the decision to withdraw it as undermining charities they hold dear or describing the bank's attitude as "Scrooge-like".

In absorbing the transaction costs of donating in its corporate giving programme, BT's MyDonate directly addresses this public concern. But few of those supporting the 'Robin Hood tax' - a tax for good causes on all financial transactions - mention the additional transactional costs involved in implementing it, or compare it with alternatives.

Payroll-giving agencies publish their administrative costs, but the extra costs to other agencies in this multi-layered scheme, including companies, charities and HMRC, are rarely considered. By contrast, issues of transaction difficulty and cost dominated recent proposals to simplify the Gift Aid scheme, regardless of the risk to total revenue.

The new Financial Conduct Authority has just announced that one of its roles will be to protect the "irrational consumer". In an approach based on behavioural economics, it will help consumers identify the non-financial factors that stop them making decisions that maximise financial benefit.

Rational public discussion about the most cost-effective ways of supporting charity is also needed, particularly given the five-fold variation in the return-to-cost ratios of different fundraising techniques.

As the idea of charity bank accounts gains traction, it would be helpful to see the detail on development costs and where costs will be carried - all issues flagged up in Accenture's report on the subject last year. It would also be useful to know to what extent such accounts will replace other forms of giving and how far they will bring in genuinely new money to the sector.

Cathy Pharoah is professor of charity funding at Cass Business School

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