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In-depth: What does inverse giving mean for the charity sector?

08 Dec 2023 In-depth

Some charities have reported an uptick in donations when they receive negative media attention. So what does inverse giving mean for the sector?

By REDPIXEL / Adobe

Negative press attention can have a detrimental impact on a charity’s reputation, staff and volunteers, as well as income.

Indeed, as some charities have recently found themselves the subject of “bad press” it might be assumed that this could negatively impact giving. And while this may be the case in some instances, charities such as the RNLI have reported the opposite effect.

Several charities have been the subject of unfavourable criticisms from some members of the public, politicians, and the press, and have experienced inverse giving.

Inverse giving is the phenomenon in which charities that are being publicly criticised receive a boost in donations in response. 

Enthuse’s Donor Pulse report found that one in five people donated to a charity after it had received bad press as a form of support over six months in 2023. 

This figure grew among 18 to 24-year-olds, with 37% of them saying they had engaged in inverse giving. 

‘Transphobia’ made donations double at small charity

A health charity received some negative attention last month after the announcement of its new CEO Steph Richards, a trans woman. 

Endometriosis South Coast, a micro charity with reported income of £8,400, told Civil Society that it received double the amount of donations it would usually get “in just that one week” Richards’s appointment was being criticised in the press. 

Richards says the charity is “constantly being attacked at this moment in time” and that she never imagined her appointment would make her feel “hunted” as it has. 

Since the news broke, she has received four death threats and “God knows how much hate mail”, she tells Civil Society. 

“There’s been lots of good come out of this as well. Let’s not forget the positives. Like I said on Women’s Hour, I was brought into this job to raise awareness of endometriosis. And the fact it was trending on Twitter [now known as X] for about eight days is remarkable. It’s just a shame that that was done on the back of transphobia,” she says.  

“We’ve had loads and loads of wonderful messages from people, which is inspiring, and no one within Endometriosis South Coast has got upset about it. Everyone knows that I’ve got a really good background as a human-rights activist and that I want to drive the charity forward.”

“We don’t believe we’ve been damaged by it in any shape or form,” Richards adds. 

Mermaids: ‘Supporters want to take action when they feel targeted’

Mermaids, a transgender youth charity that is currently being investigated by the Charity Commission, has also experienced inverse giving.  

A spokesperson tells Civil Society: “With the trans community facing ever-growing hostility in the media, we have felt the effects of inverse giving here at Mermaids, including increased donation activity following government announcements and negative coverage about trans issues. 

“These donations often come alongside heartfelt messages of support from the LGBTQIA+ community and our allies. Supporters are very clear that they want to take action when they feel we, as a charity, or our beneficiaries, are being unfairly targeted.”

While Mermaids did not share any figures, it says it saw “significant spikes” in giving in November 2022 after the Charity Commission began engaging with the charity after serious allegations were made to the press. 

Inverse giving also occurred when high-profile individuals tweeted negatively about the charity, Mermaids said. 

In an exclusive interview, interim CEO Lauren Stoner spoke to Civil Society after the charity lost an appeal to strip LGB Alliance of its charitable status. 

Stoner said: “There was a reputational impact, but that mostly actually drove increased donations if anything because people who support trans youth will see that for what it is which, is an attack on the existence of an organisation looking to support trans young people.”

RNLI: ‘Focused on our core purpose’

Another example of inverse giving is with RNLI, which has regularly been criticised by the press for helping migrants cross the channel. 

In April, Britain First created a petition to remove RNLI’s charitable status to “stop them trafficking illegal immigrants”, which has amassed 88,000 signatures. 

RNLI told Civil Society it saw a “moderate increase” in its online donations the week the petition was launched compared with the previous one, but said it was “unable to attribute that to any factor”. 

Similarly, when Nigel Farage accused the charity of being a “taxi service” for illegal immigrants in 2021, £200,000 was raised for RNLI in 24 hours after the charity responded to the comments. 

Shortly afterward, one supporter raised over £121,000 for an RNLI hovercraft named the “Flying Farage”.

Speaking of RNLI’s comms team, editor of Fundraising Magazine Stephen Cotterill reported: “It was more than just coming out fighting; it seized on a media moment, grasped the polarisation of opinion and used it to its advantage.

“By doubling down, it galvanised its supporters to give, along with new donors who had never given before but who believe in the charity’s work (or just hate Nigel Farage). Hats off to RNLI for turning a potentially damaging scenario into one of the most successful fundraising campaigns of the summer.”

When asked to comment on its experience of inverse giving, RNLI says it never takes the kindness of its supporters for granted and is “always incredibly grateful” for what it receives. 

A spokesperson says: “Everyone at the RNLI remains focused on our core purpose of saving lives at sea.”

What can charities learn from inverse giving?

Inverse giving, or “reverse trolling” as it is sometimes called, suggests that charities can utilise negative press attention to help rather than hinder their fundraising efforts. 

Charities that stick by their values in the face of media scrutiny seem to rally supporters to their side as opposed to deter them from giving.

While some social-media commenters say they will be cancelling their subscriptions, others seem to be jumping to charities’ defenses and donating as a sign of support. 

While undoubtedly bad press can damage a charity’s reputation, for others it may propel them into the mainstream and allow more donors to become engaged with their cause, depending on the cause of the criticisms.

For example, when former home secretary Suella Braverman proposed a crackdown on homeless people sleeping in tents, comedian Joe Lycett raised over £50,000 for homelessness charity Crisis in response to her comments.  

When political turbulence is rife and polarising ideologies clash, giving seems to be a way in which the public can gain autonomy and act on what they believe in. 

For more news, interviews, opinion and analysis about charities and the voluntary sector, sign up to receive the free Civil Society daily news bulletin here.

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