The Charities Aid Foundation and the National Council for Voluntary Organisations announced last week that they were dropping their joint donor research project, UK Giving, after eight years in favour of pursuing "complementary programmes of research".
Both organisations deny that the move is because of the controversy surrounding the last survey, published in November 2012, which showed that donations during 2011/12 fell by £2.3bn to £9.3bn in real terms and was widely criticised in the sector, most vehemently by fundraisers.
Peter Lewis, chief executive of the Institute of Fundraising, says the problem was the way the findings were presented, rather than the survey itself. "It was badly interpreted and it did not reflect the reality," he says. "It was a survey of what people said they had given, which is different from saying ‘giving is down 20 per cent’. Our members need good data that can help them make good decisions."
Lewis says he would like to see an annual fundraising and giving almanac that draws together different sector data that is then critiqued by academics.
Cathy Pharoah, co-director of the Centre for Charitable Giving and Philanthropy at Cass Business School in London, was another critic of the survey. "I felt they did it for PR reasons – to make a point about giving collapsing," she says.
Pharoah says a larger sample is needed to improve the reliability of the data, and suggests pooling figures from a number of sources, such as HM Revenue & Customs, the larger charities and other researchers, to build a more accurate picture of giving trends. "We have not really worked together in an open way to share data and talk about what it means," she says.
CAF plans to continue producing research based on a donor tracker survey to build on its UK Giving work. Deborah Fairclough, who replaced Richard Harrison as CAF’s head of research in January, says: "If we were worried about criticism, we would not have published that last report.
"We want to enhance the information we collect. We want to ask additional questions about new channels, such as online and mobile, and look at attitudes and behaviours towards giving. This kind of information can only come from asking donors themselves."
The UK Giving 2012 report was based on a survey of 3,319 UK adults carried out by the Office for National Statistics. The same methodology was used each year from its launch in 2004, although the sample size varied slightly. Fairclough says data capturing did not just cease, and the information collected during 2012/13 will be published by CAF by the end of this month. The survey is now in a "transitional period", she says, while changes to the methodology and a move to quarterly reporting are worked out.
One criticism was that the survey did not make clear the margins of error in its estimates, including that of a 20 per cent fall in giving. "There was a lot of information in the report about the confidence levels," says Fairclough. "We want to produce useful and robust research and to speak to the sector about the nuances. Every survey is an estimate and there will always be a margin of error."
Both the NCVO and CAF blame the demise of the survey on rising costs. Fairclough says the interviewing and data-capture costs have increased; an NCVO spokesman says the cost of the survey would go up by tens of thousands of pounds if it was continued. The NCVO will focus its efforts on producing its annual almanac, using data from charity accounts to analyse giving trends.