News and Comment

As donations decline, how can charities encourage different forms of ‘giving’?

Friday 16 November 2012


Earlier this week, news that the charity sector didn’t want to hear (but probably already suspected) came from the NCVO/Charities Aid Foundation UK Giving 2012 report, which showed a 20 per cent decrease in charitable giving this year compared to last, a real terms reduction of £1.7 billion. The survey also found a small reduction in the proportion of people giving to charity (in addition to the decrease in the overall amount donated).

A number of reasons have been put forward to explain this decline. The most plausible and popular hypothesis is that the fall in charitable giving is yet another consequence of our stagnant economy. But even if the reduction can be explained away by an entirely external and unavoidable cause such as this, charities shouldn’t take too much consolation from the situation’s inevitability. Indeed, the plight of charitable giving highlights a fundamental paradox that cuts right to the heart of the voluntary sector: at times of extreme hardship, when the need for aid is greatest, the capacity for charities to help is at its lowest.

Other explanations are less palatable still. The most recent British Social Attitudes Survey, which we’ve blogged about previously, showed a hardening of public attitudes towards those receiving welfare, a trend that could be argued to demonstrate a decline in people’s goodwill and generosity. There are even those who have expressed their disillusionment at the works and practices of various charities, interpreting the growing links between the voluntary sector and government as a loss of independence and reacting adversely to more aggressive fundraising tactics.

With household finances tighter than ever, it’s crucial that charities continue to remind people that financial donations are not the only currency they accept. Encouraging people to contribute their time, ideas, energy and support for a particular cause is equally important. Plus, at a time when money is short for everyone, requests for people to put their skills to use, rather than to put their hands in their pockets, may be more likely to be received positively.

That’s not to say that getting people to contribute to charitable causes in non-financial ways is necessarily easier than persuading people to give money. People’s time is both limited and precious and the increased pressures caused by hard times make it more so.

So what can charities do to encourage other forms of ‘giving’?

In their 2011 report Pathways through Participation, NCVO and their research partners summarised the ways in which participation can be encouraged, supported and made more attractive. The research stresses the importance of educating people about the ways in which they can support a cause, pointing to evidence which says “that few people have a full picture of the range of opportunities available to them locally”. The report’s authors also make clear that not everybody will want, or be able to, become involved in charitable work to the same degree. While some people may opt for longer-term more intensive contributions, others will prefer “to engage in a more episodic, light-touch way”. Charities need to be aware and sensitive to potential contributors’ needs and preferences.

In their fundraising guise, charities typically encourage people to give their money by emphasising the benefits donations will have on recipients. But when encouraging people to give their time and resource, we’ve learned that charities and other public services are more successful when the emphasis is shifted – stressing the benefits that participation will have on the participant. In our own Unlocking Local Capacity research we found that appealing to people’s skills and interests and promoting reciprocation schemes such as timebanking both generates more interest, and engages those who are not typically attracted to standard volunteering opportunities.