Dramatic statistics about charitable giving

By 17 November 2009

I don’t normally read speeches by politicians. But Stephen Bubb’s blog prompted me to read one by the Cabinet minister, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Liam Byrne MP.

In his speech to the Institute for Government last week, Liam Byrne said (UK) ‘charitable giving has increased dramatically’. That is an interesting statement. It is also, unfortunately, only part of the story.

Liam Byrne does not refer to a specific time period but he seems to be talking about the period of the Labour government since 1997. Taking data on charitable giving from Charities Aid Foundation and the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, charitable giving in the UK grew in real terms (that is, after adjusting for inflation) by 39.6% between 1996/97 and 2008/09. Real GDP rose by 35.4% over the same period.

In other words, charitable giving grew slightly more than total income over the past 12 years, an annual average of 0.3% more. Given that charitable giving had stagnated in the previous decade, the modest catch-up is encouraging, but it does not represent a dramatic rise.

Another measure is a bit more striking. The proportion of the population who give to charities is falling. It was 68% in 1998 and was just 54% in the last year. This is a sharp—dramatic, even—fall in the proportion of the population who give to charity in a year. It marks a depressing trend.

The other charity-related statistic quoted by Liam Byrne is a 40% growth in the number of charities. That a smaller number of us are giving essentially the same share of our income to a much larger number of charities is not necessarily a good story.

Last week I pointed out that large donations to charities are falling more than appreciated. To have to report now that a Cabinet minister’s use of statistics about charitable giving overstates how generous we are as a nation is, in a similar fashion, a little dispiriting.