Cathy Pharoah: Recent surveys are contradictory - so we need better data on fundraising

The sector should be wary of fragmented research in which the samples might be small and varied, writes our columnist

Cathy Pharoah
Cathy Pharoah

This happens to be the International Year of Statistics. You might be thinking this is not your bag, but my point is that the sector has never needed good-quality data more than it does now.

2013 is likely to be the year the government spending cuts bite noticeably. We urgently need reliable information on what is happening to giving and funding. But we don't have it - I haven't got a clue what to make of the conflicting claims in the slew of recent surveys.

It seems that, out of anxiety to get to grips with the shifting ground under the sector's feet, we are rushing out findings that have disturbing inconsistencies - not only between different organisations, but within the same organisation.

To summarise from examples in recent months: younger people are losing the habit of giving (Charities Aid Foundation, September); charity income is up by 5.5 per cent in accounts filed in the year to September (Chris Harris, December); giving falls by a fifth (National Council for Voluntary Organisations/CAF, November); the next generation of philanthropists thinks big and is the driver of powerful philanthropy (CAF, November); major donors are giving more (CAF, November); Britain falls in generosity table (CAF, December); family foundation giving shows rise (Centre for Charitable Giving and Philanthropy/Pears, December); and million-pound donations fall to lowest level for five years (Coutts, December). We are left none the wiser - or are even being misled.

The sector's data universe has been shrinking when we need it to expand. We do not have the large Guidestar database, and annual reports about the top fundraising charities are no longer published. Government investment in major sector-related surveys has been scaled back, so we no longer have surveys of central and local government spending on the sector, and the five-year funding from government and others of the Third Sector Research Centre and CGAP comes to an end this year, with their futures uncertain.

We need better statistics and should be wary of turning to claims based on fragmented research in which the samples might be small and varied. These allow for only imprecise estimates within a wide band of possible true values, as CGAP's recent briefing note, Give or Take a Few Billion, argues. Identifying real trends is difficult, tempting us to tell eye-catching stories by blurring boundaries between conclusions that are justified and those that are purely speculative. This generates confusion that will risk increasing scepticism. Instead, we need to evaluate what the evidence tells us in the round about the current financial trends.

That advocate for science, Brian Cox, recently expressed his fear that the advance of scientific knowledge has made us careless about the need for rationality, and we are happy to see those who believe complete drivel get the most media attention.

Cathy Pharoah is professor of charity funding at Cass Business School

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