David Bowie

Celebrity deaths and charity donations: It’s personal

By Guest contributor 15 January 2016 3 minute read

In the past month we have lost three bastions of British art and culture to cancer: Lemmy, David Bowie and Alan Rickman. In all these cases, the deaths came as a shock to the public, and the response from many who didn’t ‘know’ these people personally—but to whom they meant a lot—has been to donate to charity.

Both encouragement from public figures and responding to personal tragedy are two big drivers of charitable donations. Charity fundraising campaigns are often supported by a charity patron. Meanwhile, it is common for those dealing with loss to set up a fundraising page, or in some cases even a memorial charity, as a way of coming to terms with their grief. Often the motivating factor for those donating as a result of tragedy is ‘to make something good come of it’.

NPC’s research into what motivates charitable giving in the UK—Money for good—would categorise those who give to a charity because of a celebrity patron as someone who ‘gives because they are asked’ or an ‘ad-hoc giver’. Meanwhile those giving as a response to grief ‘give because they care about the cause’ or  a ‘loyal supporter’. What is interesting here is to see donors in transition between these groups.

In life, Bowie was a committed fundraiser to HIV and Aids charities, while one of Rickman’s final acts was his involvement in a campaign to raise money for refugee charities. It is worth noting that many grieving fans have opted to fundraise for cancer charities, as opposed to the charities these famous individuals supported in their lifetimes.

This confirms something many of us already know about charitable giving; that it is highly personal. Donations are often made based on what the individual feels to be right, and so it is hard to bring other factors into that decision making process. And many of us differ. While one person may find it hard to walk past someone sleeping rough without giving them a bit of change, another person may find the opposite; their gut tells them the right thing to do is to walk past and then set up a direct debit to a homelessness charity when they get home.

All of this makes the message of impact very hard to get through. Money for good UK also showed that only 10% of donors will look for evidence of a charity’s impact before they donate. But it may be that some members of the public have a different concept of impact than us charity professionals do. Medical research charities receive some of the most donations in the UK. And when charities like Cancer Research UK ask us to ‘help beat cancer sooner’ there is a clear message of impact attached: it’s as simple as finding a cure for cancer, and your money can help. For other causes, however, the case is not as straightforward, and in many instances an over simplification of message could risk harming an issue in the long-run.

That is the tough job that charities face; to understand their own impact, to understand why people give, and to relay that impact to the public in a way that engages them in an issue. But whether or not their donors claim to care about impact, a charity’s responsibility is to make a difference. After all, that is the goal of all of the sector’s hard work: to make something good come of it.