Stephen Pidgeon: Fundraisers need more intelligent research

It needs to take greater account of the emotion involved in giving, says our columnist

Stephen Pidgeon
Stephen Pidgeon

A survey published last month on how much money people in different countries give to humanitarian aid causes received quite a bit of sector press coverage.

The survey of adults in the UK, France, Germany and Belgium, commissioned by the global humanitarian aid event Aidex, found that a third of Britons gave nothing at all - a slightly higher proportion than people of the other nationalities. The reason most often cited for not giving was that people were concerned about how the money would be spent.

My reaction was terse. Why do people research something so bloomin' obvious without going into the detail of why people think this way and what we can do about it? The research appeared, like so much before it, to be a wafer-thin excuse for some publicity.

Did it contribute intellectual value? Will any fundraising change because of it? Not at all! Our understanding of supporters' changing attitudes and motives in this sharp economic climate desperately needs rigorous research, so it's a pity to waste effort drawing banal conclusions.

Another research paper, this time from the US, also has a number of gaps. This is despite the fact that it is from an authoritative source - Cygnus Applied Research - and quotes its president, Penelope Burk, a major influencer of fundraising in the US.

Its 2011 Cygnus Donor Survey, published in April, summaries the views of 22,000 active donors. It contains astonishing predictions of future giving: apparently, 79 per cent will give more this year than last, and only 7 per cent will give less.

And of those who gave through the mail last year, 26 per cent say they plan to give less through this method this year.

I have a number of concerns about this influential US research. Picking out just two of them, one is merely irritating - there were only three age groups: under 35, 35 to 64 and 65 and over.

There's me, at the top end of the middle group (married 25 years, my business behind me, three kids at or near university) - and I am meant to have the same views of my charitable giving as I had when I was in my mid-30s, between marriages and childless. Well, that's daft.

The other concern is that the basic premise behind the questions is wrong. Asking people what or how they will give next year requires a rational response that bears little relationship to the emotional process involved in giving.

At best, rational answers reflect people's view of themselves; at worst, they're the views they think they ought to give.

So if a list of possible concerns about giving to emergencies contains the statement "I'm concerned my money will be misused", it's bound to get a tick. Will their concern actually stop them giving? No.

The emotion involved in giving requires significantly more intelligent research to establish its origin.

Stephen Pidgeon is chair of Tangible and the Institute of Fundraising's standards committee

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