Viewpoint: Giving research is good, but is the agenda right?

The new Centre for Charitable Giving may be of little help to fundraisers because the profession's big issues are not on the menu.

After months of consultation, the new Centre for Charitable Giving and Philanthropy, which is based at various universities, is finally here. The development is overdue: the sector has been hampered by poor-quality information, conflicting data and a lack of interest from academe on giving and philanthropic fundraising.

I can remember a conversation at the Home Office three years a go in which I was promised that the Government was interested in resolving these issues and in ensuring fundraising would be supported by work that would make a genuine difference.

This was later emphasised in the Home Office report A Generous Society, which recognised that the overwhelming percentage of voluntary organisations were small, and thus ill-equipped to conduct their own research into giving audiences and to develop new forms of engaging with donors as a consequence. A new research centre was to do this for them.

I have little doubt that the new centre will make a difference. The academics selected to lead projects in each area of the centre are each eminent in their fields.

The Economic and Social Research Council has one of the world's finest peer-review systems to evaluate research proposals, and we can have confidence in the integrity of the selection process.

But I have two reservations about these developments. First, I see very little in what is being proposed that will make a tangible difference to fundraisers. None of the big issues that face the profession are on the agenda for research.

Second, the identification of new audiences and the development of new forms of donor engagement have been ignored. Topics such as the solicitation of legacies, e-philanthropy, patterns of giving in ethnic communities, lifetime-giving behaviours and donor retention are all missing, yet these are the issues we know the fundraising profession wants addressed. Indeed, it is telling that the 'f' word is mentioned only once in the press release.

Yes, there is definitely a need for the Government to fund research that examines the impact and effectiveness of the sector, the social returns that accrue from giving, how these might be diffused within society and how governments can work better with not-for-profits for joint outcomes.

That such matters are both interesting in their own right and of profound significance to Government policy is not in question. These though, should have been left to the new Third Sector Research Centre, whose remit is to look at exactly these issues.

The scarce resources of our Centre for Charitable Giving should have been reserved to focus on what the Home Office originally intended it to focus on: expanding giving and aiding the profession of fundraising.

<h2>5 more things...</h2>

Jenny Harrow, professor of voluntary sector management at Cass Business School at City University in London, will run the centre's hub, which will co-ordinate three spokes, with charity researcher Cathy Pharoah as co-director. They will work with the NCVO, the Charities Aid Foundation and Stephen Osborne, professor of public management at the University of Edinburgh.

Spoke one covers Individual and Business Giving and looks at challenges to traditional giving patterns and recognition of social returns on charitable investment.

Spoke two looks at Charitable Giving and Social Redistribution and will investigate whether charity work mitigates or reinforces social and economic inequalities.

Spoke three is called Institutionalised Giving Structures and explores how new forms of philanthropy can emerge.

The centre has been established and funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, the Office of the Third Sector, the Carnegie UK Trust and the Scottish Government. It will receive £2.2m over five years.

  • Adrian Sargeant is professor of fundraising at Bristol Business School and at Indiana University in the US 

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