Charitable giving: Promises, Promises

Saying you'll give to charity is easy, but how many actually convert the pledge into action? Nicola Barranger investigates.

Situated outside the Museum of Iron in Coalbrookdale, Shropshire, are four seemingly ordinary park benches, looking onto a fountain. They are ordinary until you decide to rest awhile and read the engravings on the slats: "I will promise to carry a donor card", "I will learn a foreign language" or, simply, "I will be happy".

Here for all the world to acknowledge are the pledges people made as part of ITV's Year of Promises for 2000.

As you become engrossed in such determination for self-improvement, you might notice that the majority of the promises vow to help less fortunate people, either through the charitable giving of time or money. "I will give at least one item to charity each month," reads one pledge; others say "I will help to raise money for Meningitis Research" and "I will run at least two races for the Diabetic Association". Such public demonstrations of altruism are rare in the UK, but it seems that one route to self-fulfilment in the modern age runs down the road of charitable giving.

Many of the pledges even include a price. One family promised to donate £2 to Oxfam, for example - for a family on a low income, £2 is as significant as £200 for a six-figure earner. Perhaps surprisingly, however, no one seemed prepared to commit to more than £5 a month. In a country where the standard minimum wage is £5.05 an hour, one hour's work once a month is the maximum anyone was prepared to pledge, or at least admit to pledging.

The question is whether we should we be satisfied with this amount - or embarrassed.

According to Hilary Browne-Wilkinson, director of the Institute of Philanthropy, people are reluctant to promise more because few of us keep accurate budgets of our monthly spending. "We put our heads in the sand and don't know how much our way of life is costing us," she says. "If people did any sort of a budget, they would learn how much they could afford to give away. We can probably give away more than we feel we can."

Established in the same year as the Coalbrookdale park benches, the Institute of Philanthropy aims to concentrate the country's thoughts on more outward acts of altruism and generosity. However, that very word - philanthropy - is rarely heard in modern parlance, evoking instead an age when rich employers would look after their workers, or when 'patrons' would employ musicians to compose or artists to paint.

"The 19th century was a period of great philanthropy," says Browne-Wilkinson. "We had the Cadbury family and the Rowntree family, who would provide housing and healthcare, and even community activities."

Many of these responsibilities have long since passed to government.

So where does that leave the individual donor - free of all responsibility to those less fortunate? According to the Charities Aid Foundation, most of Britain's population still feels a strong sense of responsibility to donate, even if their gifts might not be particularly large. Yet it is still difficult to work out just who is giving, how much they give in relation to their annual income and what motivates them.

CAF estimates that individuals give about £7bn a year to charity, which works out roughly as £148 per adult. Although that figure is quite high compared with other European nations, it is not particularly generous when you take into account the average wage of £26,151 - it is much less than the 1.5 per cent the Giving Campaign suggested we all gave. At that percentage, someone on £25,000 would be donating £375 a year, or £7.21 a week. If we did the household budgets more carefully, that could easily match the weekly Starbucks bill for a City worker.

According to CAF, just under two-thirds of the population donates to charity in any given month - although that does not mean those same people will give to charity every month.

It takes a global disaster such as the Asian tsunami to galvanise large numbers of people to dig deep. Then, £100m was donated in less than a fortnight and charities held their collective breath in the hope that a new culture of charitable giving was about to take over the nation.

The sector breathes normally again these days, however, as levels of giving have subsided with the tide.

According to Cathy Pharoah, director of research at CAF, the reason for the large donations was simply that it was the big news story, one that ran for days and days and featured increasingly devastating stories and pictures. "The tsunami attracted a level of media coverage and information that would be the envy of most causes," she says.

But many would-be long-term givers were disappointed when, a few months later, the media turned to stories about some of the money not getting through.

In her study Charitable Giving and Donor Motivation, Dr Sally Hibbert of the University of Nottingham says that every time we are asked for money we go through a series of questions before reaching a decision.

"Charitable giving is a very difficult decision for people to make," she says. "You can give a lot of money and still feel you should be giving more. Even regular givers have to adopt mental strategies to stop themselves feeling guilty."

At the same time, there will always be a hard core of determined non-givers, even if at each time of asking they might well go through the same decision-making process as givers. Women are known to be better givers than men - Hibbert feels there are several reasons for that.

"Women are often better connected socially than men," she says. "In the traditional set-up, they are at home more often, so the social structures are there as well."

Unlike most office workers, teachers will often find themselves thrown into the role of unofficial fundraiser through their work with children.

The school at which Jane Roy works, near Guildford in Surrey, recently raised £4,000 for Cancer Research UK. In total, her school is supporting eight different charities this year - little wonder, then, that the sector often targets schools for sustained giving.

Roy's professional work touches on her personal giving. She sees charitable giving as an important part of her personal finance. "I earn enough to go shopping and get things," she says. "You have to look after those who don't - it's a responsibility."

But Roy is unusual in Guildford - in a recent survey conducted by the Giving Campaign, the county town of Surrey was found to be among the ten worst places in the country for charitable giving. Perhaps even more surprising is that this fact failed to shock its residents. In its town centre, Stephen Taylor, 38, is not in the least surprised. "I can well believe that," he says. "This place is full of selfish people." Taylor does not have a direct debit to any charity, but admits to giving "the occasional fiver" if asked. The largest sum he has donated is £10.

Across the Atlantic, charitable giving is a different matter altogether.

In the US, people will discuss their donations to charity as a matter of pride. With better tax concessions, people tend to be far more open about their donations.

"I remember going to a conference at Harvard," says Browne-Wilkinson of the Institute of Philanthropy. "In the evening, we were sitting around having dinner and all the women started to discuss which charities they were going to give to. It was the beginning of December and they had to get their accounts in for the end of the year - you would never have heard that in England."

Whereas in the US there is often public recognition of charitable giving, here in the UK we tend to keep those sort of details private. We do not look to get our names on plaques, because this goes against our self-effacing culture. But Browne-Wilkinson feels things might be changing. "People are beginning to feel they might like to see their name in a programme," she says. "They don't mind being recognised for what they've given."

Pharaoh has noticed a definite change of attitude among the UK's higher earners. Some entrepreneurs, she says, are seeing charitable giving less as an act of altruism and more as one of responsibility. "For some people, giving is undoubtedly seen as a duty," she says. "I've heard one or two entrepreneurs who will use that kind of language to describe why they give back to the community. I suspect it's always been part of the motivation of major donors, especially wealthy entrepreneurs.

"We are beginning to realise there is a need for those who've done well in society to have a sense of social responsibility. There is definitely more of an awareness."

Whether out of fear of being inundated with begging letters, or to avoid accusations of being self-congratulating, the average British donor is highly reluctant to discuss these matters openly. At the other end of the scale, one might think that the hardened non-givers are equally reluctant to talk about their (lack of) charitable giving.

One individual I quizzed said quite candidly that he gave regularly to charity. When pushed, however, he couldn't remember the last time he had given, he had no standing orders or direct debits for charitable organisations, he had never stopped for chuggers and he hadn't bought a poppy in years.

Perhaps a visit to the Coalbrookdale benches might change his views on charitable giving. Perhaps if there were more public reminders about how much is being fed into the sector, more people might actually sign those direct debit forms as part of their monthly outgoings.


Garry Peters, 43

"I give money to WWF-UK, the RSPB and the RNID, and I also tend to give money to people collecting in the street. It sounds big-headed if you talk about how much you give, but the people who give more are in the limelight - the superstars. If I won some money I'd definitely give some to WWF. I've been a member since I was a child and it's just done a walk to save the orang-utan - I'd probably give something towards that"

Robin Davies, 58

"I'm sure there are better givers than me, but I do give to charity. I tend to respond to the rattling tin - I'd rather give on the spur of the moment than by setting up a direct debit. Gift Aid hasn't made a big difference to my giving, but if I were asked to sign I would"

Jack and Susan, in their 50s (names have been changed)

"We give regularly to the RSPB, WWF-UK, the Royal Horticultural Society, the Scottish National Trust, the Scottish Royal Academy and the Surrey Wildlife Trust. We gave to the Zeebrugge disaster in 1987, but that was a few years ago and now we get overwhelmed by disasters such as the tsunami. We always buy charity Christmas cards, usually from Unicef. You also tend to give in a lot of different ways that might not be obvious. Instead of putting things in the bin, you can recycle them or give them to charity shops. Those ways are often overlooked"

Matt Steele, 26

"I responded to the tsunami and earthquake appeals - there were tins in the supermarkets so I just put some money in there. I live in Brighton and you get approached on the street, almost every day, by chuggers - it's an occupation for students. They only have to get one person a day, and the student doesn't believe in the charity that much. I think it's very important to get feedback. If the charity is doing a particular project, I think it's important to say it works - it's important to feel involved"

Claire Vidler, 34

"I responded to the tsunami. My husband and I gave between £200 and £300. It was an immediate reaction - I think it was the scale that had such an impact. It does have a lot to with how the media portrayed it. I don't give to demands through the door, because I feel pestered. We give on a regular basis to Cancer Research UK, Children in Need and the Stroke Association, and every now and then I'll put money in tins. Whenever I see a Big Issue seller, I'll buy two copies".

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