If I want an MP3 player or flowers or a bus, not only do I have knowledge about what I want them to do and be (roses: red, fresh, for example), but I have fairly limited choices about where I can get them - from a shop or a website, say.
Contrast that with the voluntary sector: would-be donors usually have limited knowledge with which to make judgements about charities, and choice is vast. Forget catching the number 42 or 601B bus; you've got 180,000 routes to take.
Even if you narrow your focus to a geographic patch, a particular field of concern or some other slice of the charity cake, there may be hundreds, if not thousands, of organisations to choose from. Unless I head for MP3 World, should such a horror exist, my personal listening preference is iPod versus a particular store's dozen alternatives.
And you can road-test before buying when you check out cars or sit on sofas. Which charity (now there's an idea for a magazine) offers the paying public a real preview or comparison? Judging by the initial reactions to everything from GuideStar to Intelligent Giving to talk of league tables, you'd think charities want to deny consumers any independent assessment.
But if donors making informed judgements is a no-no, perhaps charities need to create some new trust mechanisms. One of the easiest might be reciprocating consortia: take direct mail list swaps to a logical extreme, or use the example of payroll giving groups.
Thus a group of charities with something in common (donor numbers, say, or their location), but which are not in direct competition, could work together to extract more from their own and each other's donors, as well as enlarge their donor pools, by endorsing each other to promote both a broader range of giving and a larger total gift.
But could they trust each other? What information would they demand of their partners? What guarantees should they require? And what, if they were ever allowed to find out, would that tell the average bewildered donor about choice and trust?
Nick Cater, email@example.com