Daniel Fluskey and Rhodri Davies: What can we do about falling donor numbers?

There is no single explanation for the apparent trend, so we need a much wider conversation to deal with this challenge

Daniel Fluskey and Rhodri Davies
Daniel Fluskey and Rhodri Davies

Is the world becoming a less generous place? A growing amount of research suggests that it might be, as levels of participation in charitable giving and wider social action appear to be on a worrying downward trajectory.

The big question is what is causing the decline, and – perhaps even more importantly – what can we do to reverse it? The Charities Aid Foundation and the Institute of Fundraising recently brought together a range of colleagues to grapple with the issues.

Research from CAF and others offers a fairly consistent picture in the UK in recent years: while the overall amount given has remained roughly constant, this masks the fact that levels of participation have fallen, leaving charities increasingly reliant on a smaller number of donors.

IoF research, meanwhile, suggests that charities are changing their fundraising strategies to emphasise improving the experience of existing supporters over finding new one.

It is clear that we should not expect a single explanation for what is happening. Charitable giving is shaped by a vast and complex range of factors – from the psychological or emotional to the cultural or macroeconomic – so any decline is almost certain to have multiple and interrelated causes.

We wanted to get a sense of what people’s experience was telling them and whether there were any obvious shared areas of concern. What we found was fascinating.

Put less in, get less out

Perhaps a decline in the number of people giving is the inevitable result of a decrease in active fundraising: are people giving less simply because they are not being asked as much? If so, we need to understand why. Recent regulatory change, the rising costs of fundraising and charities deliberately adopting different strategies could all be factors.

Some participants suggested that the impact of the General Data Protection Regulation might be affecting the ability of charities to reach as many supporters as they could before (though it should be remembered that this is an EU-specific factor that cannot account for wider global trends).

And some traditional fundraising activities are less present than before: the decline of large fundraising agencies suggests a market shift in opportunities to reach new supporters. Conversely, one area that has seen clear growth – legacy gifts – has probably seen the most consistent investment and focus across the sector in recent years.

Relevance, trust and new ways of doing good

The issue of declining levels of public trust in charities and in institutions more broadly was an important talking point. This is often a contentious question, with some feeling that concerns about trust have been used to stoke negative narratives about the charity sector.

However, the consensus around the table was that, although care must be taken not to pinpoint trust as a stand-alone cause of the decline in giving, it is clearly part of the overall picture and must be taken seriously.

Many participants linked the question of trust to the emergence of new models for doing social good, ranging from crowdfunding and ethical consumerism to mass-mobilisation movements such as Extinction Rebellion or Black Lives Matter. Alongside this, we need to think of how relevant charities are seen to be. Are they still the main way people look to express their values and identity in an increasingly crowded market for doing good?

Others said that some of these new models might have their own weaknesses. Perhaps a meeting of minds is required between them and traditional charities in order to get combinations that could harness the best of both worlds.

Giving doesn’t happen in a bubble

The discussion also considered whether broader changes in society and the economy were important. Has increasing social division led to people’s hearts becoming hardened because they are less able to empathise with those from outside their own communities or "filter bubbles"?

Likewise, years of austerity might have had an impact. If people not only feel less able to give, but also come to question more fundamentally where the appropriate boundaries of responsibility between the state and charity lie in our society, what does that mean for their engagement with charity?

So what next?

It should be clear (and perhaps unsurprising, given the scale of these issues) that our event raised more questions than answers – and this isn’t even the full list!

But that’s all right. This is not supposed to be the end of anything, but the beginning of a much wider conversation, one that we would urge others to join in with. It was encouraging in itself to see how many people in the charity sector are already getting to grips with some of the big challenges facing us over the coming years.

Together, CAF and the IoF will be looking at what we can do with others to explore these areas more. We want to hear as many views as possible and figure out what we can all do together to ensure that the spirit of generosity that has underpinned our civil society for so long continues to flourish in the future.

Rhodri Davies is head of policy at CAF. Daniel Fluskey is head of policy & external affairs at the Institute of Fundraising

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