Britain’s giving problems

26 November 2010

Two weeks ago I was wandering round the campus of Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. The affluence was palpable, as was the role that private philanthropy has played in developing the university. It reminded me how far we have to go in the UK in promoting private giving.

There is growing interest in the UK in thinking about how we promote charitable giving, not least because of cuts in public funding. There needs to be greater understanding of the underlying problems with our giving. The main problems are the following:

1. Levels of giving are low and stagnant.
2. Numbers of people giving are falling.
3. Rich people give a very low proportion of their income or wealth.

Confronted with statistics, most people would accept that these are problems. Little concerted action is underway to fix the problems though. Others share this perception. For example, a majority of people polled by the Guardian’s new Voluntary Sector Network thought charities are not doing enough about the problem of falling donors.

(NPC would also argue that the destination for much giving is not thoughtful enough and that resources get misallocated as a result. This is a fault of both donors and charities.)

If we start to acknowledge the problems we have a greater chance to fix them. If, on the other hand, we pretend that we are generous and there is nothing wrong—such as in this assertion of an “incredible philanthropic culture” from the editor of The Spectator, Fraser Nelson—progress will be more difficult. (And, in case someone is so tempted, it is not possible to blame the period of the last Labour government alone for the problems. They have been brewing for much longer.)

Anyone interested in charitable giving in Britain should learn and then repeat the three facts above like a mantra, before thinking long and hard how to tackle each. All parties have a role to play here—government, charities, individual donors. A co-ordinated and widespread effort is involved. The government has committed to publishing a white paper on charitable giving next March. This is welcome. Hopefully it will focus attention on the problems above.

This is an appropriate time to think more about charitable giving. Last Friday was the annual Children in Need fundraising hosted on the BBC. The amount raised on the night was £18.1 million, down on last year’s £20.3 million. Hopefully the final total raised will exceed or at least match 2009’s record £39 million. In addition, The Times launched its Christmas charity appeal today. The Guardian has also now launched its appeal online with the print edition following tomorrow. NPC advised and supported the Guardian. If you want to counter Britain’s giving malaise, why not start by giving to these, or to Children in Need, and then get thinking what more needs to be done.