Stephen Pidgeon: We chase young donors at the risk of ignoring where the real wealth lies

It's a fact of life that people in their 50s and early 60s are the ones with the money to donate seriously, writes our columnist

Stephen Pidgeon
Stephen Pidgeon

According to a recent blog by the renowned US fundraising copywriter Tom Ahern, 80 per cent of the individual wealth of the US is owned by people aged 60 or more. This compelling figure has also been cited for decades as applicable to the UK - the "over-60s" marketing agency, Millennium, used it in its promotions (but I can't ask about it because it went into administration).

I've not found a source for that statistic in either country, but I looked recently at the Office for National Statistics' definitive Wealth and Assets Survey, published in May 2014 and covering the UK. It makes salutary reading, particularly for those directors of fundraising who still bleat about needing to attract a younger demographic of donors. They've been saying the same for 30 years, and it's a fact of life that the non-giving younger demographic of yesteryear are now the donors of today - not because they were recruited to give their first gifts in their 30s, but because they are now in their late 50s and early 60s, and that's the time people have the money to donate seriously.

I realise that I'm using ageist language, but you do need to understand who owns the wealth in this country. If you're reading this article, you almost certainly donate, probably to several charities, and many of your friends do, too. But most readers of this magazine are not members of the groups in the UK that own the most individual wealth. That's because you are neither retired nor near retirement.

What do I mean by individual wealth? It is made up of four constituent parts: property wealth (net of mortgage debt); financial wealth (cash, savings, stocks and so on); physical wealth (the mass of things we own); and private pension wealth. The first and the last are the big influencers, accounting for 75 per cent of wealth. Out of ten, the three wealthiest groups, by far, are older. There's no clear guidance on age; it's more to do with life-stage and whether the two key drivers of emotional change - retirement and children leaving home - have occurred.

In the wealthiest group - but accounting for only 5 per cent of the UK population - are couples with one under state retirement age and one over it, and no kids. Their average wealth is nearly three times the average national household value of £218,000. In the next wealthiest group are couples, both of whom are over retirement age, again with no kids; in the third, just behind them, are couples with children who are now independent - grown and flown. In total, those three groups make up only 26 per cent of the population. But that's where the disposable money clearly lies.

What are the implications of the nation's wealth being concentrated in the hands of relatively few people? Only one other group - couples under retirement age but with no kids - has a wealth value above the national average. All six other groups (62 per cent of the population) fall under the average, particularly young single households and young sharing households. This certainly challenges the plea for younger donors and the belief that new and social media will quickly replace traditional media.

What are the implications for fundraisers? Whatever you do and however much you resent having to do the same as fundraisers did 30 years ago, you should not neglect traditional fundraising that targets older people - that's where the money lies. And the simple fact that older people die sooner than younger people means their legacy gifts are more likely to arrive before you too retire.

Stephen Pidgeon is a consultant and a teacher

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