The UK public are a generous bunch you know. The latest research on UK Giving from estimates that that over 2020 was £11.3bn, an increase (yes, an increase!) on the previous year of £10.6bn. In a year of unprecedented challenge, that is remarkable.
Rewind a year, if someone had asked me if levels of giving would stay the same during a year of the pandemic I would have shook my head. Charitable giving had never been tested as it has been in the last 20 months or so and charities’ ability to reach out to supporters and the public had never been so disrupted. I feared that such challenges would inevitably mean fewer people would be approached to give, and that levels of financial support would suffer. It looks like I was wrong. And I am absolutely delighted that I was.
The generosity and support of the UK public should be rightly recognised and applauded, but equally so should the tremendous efforts of fundraisers. The turn to digital and virtual events, the continued communication and engagement with supporters, the compelling and innovative campaigns, the emergency appeals that were turned round in days, were the foundation and inspiration behind that giving.
Where charity supporters remained loyal (which they did) this is because of the stewardship they have had, the thanking, the stories of impact they read and see about how their support makes a difference. To fundraisers across the UK, I hope that you feel at least a smidge of satisfaction of seeing the research this week and knowing that your hard work matters.
Slow decline in number of people who give
But there are two longer-term trends that the research highlight which do give us cause for concern for the long-term health and sustainability of giving. That increase in overall donations is great, but it’s coming from an ever-smaller group of people. The number of people giving to charity in 2020 fell by 1.6 million.
It would be tempting to put that down solely to the pandemic and the reduction of fundraising activity. However, while that is undoubtedly part of the reason, it isn’t the full picture. This drop in the number of people giving to charity is an acceleration of a trend that we were seeing pre-pandemic. We should be clear, it’s not falling off a cliff, but the overall picture is one of a slow decline in the numbers of those who give.
Does that matter, if charities are still raising the same, or more, then they have done before? I think it does, and that’s for two reasons. First, it’s something that at some point, however far down the line, becomes unsustainable, and that the overall amount charities raise can’t be propped up by those that are giving continuing to donate at every-higher levels.
Secondly, engaging people in giving has wider societal and personal benefits (beyond the money that the charity raises). Through fundraising and giving people become more aware of issues in the world and their community, take steps to live more healthy and active lifestyles, talk to friends or family about things they care about, and get involved in volunteering and campaigning. If fewer people continue to give, it’s not just charities and their causes that feel the negative impact – we all do.
Concern about early 2021 results
The other worrying trend is what the research is telling us about 2021 (UK Giving provides stats on giving from Jan-Aug 2021). Of course that period is in no way ‘back to normal’, but it was more normal than 2020. However, both the mean average donation amount and the proportion of people reporting to give to charity were lower in 2021 than in 2020.
It makes me concerned that the extra giving we saw in 2020 was very particular in being ‘emergency’ giving that people rallied to do during a time of huge challenge. But as the ‘emergency’ became less apparent, and it became more about transitioning to managing an end of the pandemic (rather than the full throes of pre-vaccination Covid), perhaps that impulse to give has waned.
That could be for a whole range of reasons – for example, cost of living increases, economic uncertainty in job markets, spending returning on holidays and eating out. But if those trends continue through the end of 2021 and into 2022 then the next editions of UK Giving are likely to make for painful reading.
So, what can we do about it? We have to recognise that giving is linked to wider economic trends and levels of household spending and we do need realistic expectations about what can be achieved during a period of turmoil and challenge. But there are things that make a difference.
Continuing to talk to supporters and tell them stories of impact and change is vital; supporting charities who have not been able yet to take advantage of digital fundraising and new ways of working; investing in fundraising skills and activity; and at a wider level encouraging charitable giving and celebrating the great work that charities do.
We want to do more than manage decline in charity giving, but it isn’t easy. I’m sure 2022 will bring more opportunities than 2021 has to start to turn those trends around, with more events and community fundraising coming back, more opportunities to sponsor people for challenge events return, and fundraising through face-to-face activity continuing.
But we can’t take it for granted – it’s fundraisers that make it happen, and having seen the unstinting determined, committed, and innovative ways that meant that fundraisers raised more money in 2020 than pre-pandemic I am sure we have the potential and people to do it.
Daniel Fluskey is head of policy and external affairs at the Chartered Institute of Fundraising