Interview: Richard Harrison

The Charities Aid Foundation research boss defends its recent surveys and says a new fundraising council is needed

Richard Harrison
Richard Harrison

Richard Harrison, the head of research at the Charities Aid Foundation, hit the headlines last year when CAF and the National Council for Voluntary Organisations released UK Giving, a controversial piece of research that suggested there had been a 20 per cent fall in donations in the year to March 2012.

This research, and several other surveys by CAF and others, have drawn a strong reaction from the fundraising community, notably from Stephen Pidgeon, a trustee of the Institute of Fundraising, and Cathy Pharoah, professor of charity funding at Cass Business School, which has published research showing a large margin for error in recent figures.

Pharoah, who was Harrison's predecessor at CAF, has said there were "disturbing inconsistencies" in some of the data produced by CAF and in other similar surveys by other organisations, and Pidgeon has called for Harrison to apologise if his data proves incorrect.

Harrison is unrepentant. "That's what our findings were," he says. "It's our duty as researchers to report the findings we produce, not just the findings people will like." UK Giving is "gold standard" data collection, he says, approved by the Office for National Statistics, with a methodology that has been used for years. "I was surprised that people were surprised," he says.

Solid research

Harrison has little time for those who suggest CAF should move away from analysing donor motivation and predicting future behaviour to solid research based on accounts. He says fundraisers need data that allows them to predict future behaviour. "Accountants don't measure demographics and geographics," he says. "They don't record what day the donation was made, for example; you have to capture that separately. In the recession, it's no use having data telling you how things were three years ago. You need to know how things are now."

In his previous work in market research, he says, a marketing conference would bring with it "whirlwinds of data so recent you could touch it". It is this, he says, the fundraising sector should aspire to.

He thinks there should be a single fundraising research council, comprising 10 or 12 of the sector's leaders, which would map the research needs of fundraisers and "construct a narrative" out of data that has already been produced. The council, he says, would be different from, and less formal than, existing bodies such as the Third Sector Research Centre, the Centre for Giving and Philanthropy and the Institute of Philanthropy.

"The first thing to do would be to write down what fundraisers want to know," Harrison says. "Then you work out what data is already out there and what you need to collect. At the moment, I have people asking me: 'What am I supposed to take from your numbers if there is other data showing charity funding is growing?' This institution could take a position." Its conclusions could be put to the wider sector, he adds, to see if it agreed, where it thought the data was weak and whether more research was needed.

Such a research council, says Harrison, would start small, require little funding and meet only a few times a year. He says he is keen to involve other umbrella bodies and sector luminaries in the process, but as yet he has not approached others to seek support.

Tracking donors

In the longer term, he envisages a sector in which donors could eventually be tracked according to a range of characteristics: age, gender, income and location. They could also be tracked against the causes they prefer and the amounts they give and when. "The thing that's struck me from day one in this job is that there's no broad access to the shifting psychology of the donor," he says.

Private sector companies have attitudinal data on buyers "coming out of their ears", he says, and many fiercely competitive private companies collaborate to collect customer data; the sector should follow suit, reaching out to the market research community for support and possibly forming another new entity, called something like Pro Bono Research. "There are thousands of market research agencies that could do pro bono work," he says. "There are researchers who would happily help out."

Harrison sees a major role for the Charity Commission in another issue - the quality of data that comes out of charity accounts. He says annual returns to the commission are "compelling, but a bit thin" and that the commission should ask charities to report donations from individuals as well as total voluntary income.

"This isn't a big issue for the commission," he says. "It's not the commission's job to create structures to encourage giving. But the way it does things at the moment makes research difficult for fundraisers."

CV:

2006: Research director, Charities Aid Foundation
2006: Director, Synovate Healthcare
2000: Director, Synovate China
1996: Director, Synovate, a market research company

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