Forget the emotional appeals—not all donations are equal

How would you feel if you donated to a charity but only a third of the money raised reached the organisation? Or if you sponsored a friend to complete a parachute jump and found that your donation had to cover the cost of that jump before funds reached the charity?

And what if you discovered that injuries incurred by first-time parachute jumpers were so frequent that every £1 raised cost the NHS £13? Aside from legitimate concern for your daredevil friend, you might start to wonder if this is really such a great way to raise money.

This is the case put by William MacAskill in a recent article for Time. He argues that these sort of fundraising wheezes can be dramatically inefficient, with no guarantee that funds go to the best organisations or areas of most need. In the worst cases, gala fundraisers can cost more to host than they raise for charity (and we have seen a little of that in the UK recently). Inefficiency isn’t the only problem. We know that emotional imagery is central to fundraising, but MacAskill describes just how strong a hold it has over public attitudes to giving.

He describes an experiment where donors are shown a picture of ‘a single bird, exhausted, with oil-soaked feathers’ and are asked what they will give to save birds from a spill. It turns out that people would donate roughly the same amount regardless of whether they thought the number of birds at risk was 2,000 or 200,000: ‘The number of birds saved had almost no impact on the amount people would give.’

We have to be careful here—people give to good causes on an emotional level, and it would be daft to argue against that (or even want to). But for as long as fundraising is a primary communications channel for charities, they should be aware that images and big ideas can both attract donations and detract from some of the core work the charity exists to achieve.

Ultimately, we all have some responsibility to think about where our money can make the biggest difference (NPC has even argued that it’s a moral responsibility). We aren’t there yet—currently only two in five donors do any research at all before making their largest donation to charity.

So how can donors best assess the charities they want to support? Tempting as it is to use the percentage of funds going to the frontline as a rule of thumb, low overheads tell us nothing about what a charity actually achieves. The same goes for pay structure: a well-paid chief exec might represent waste, or might just as easily be the cost of a brilliant leader who brings better services to beneficiaries.

One thing we do know: if donors start to scrutinise the impact of charities—the real difference they make on the ground, beyond the brochures and glossy websites—then this will drive charities to make such information readily available. And when that happens, everyone gains.

The sector would be much poorer, of course, if people didn’t sponsor loved ones to complete personal challenges, but there’s nothing wrong with a bit of research to go alongside it. When not all donating is equal, then there is nothing dry or passionless in taking time to ensure your donation achieves what you want it to.

A version of this blog was first published by Spears Magazine as part of our philanthropy series.