It's time for the charity sector to pay for better data

15 May 2014 Voices

Fundraisers desperately need decent data, and it’s time for the sector to start paying for it, says Stephen Pidgeon.

Fundraisers desperately need decent data, and it’s time for the sector to start paying for it, says Stephen Pidgeon

Do you remember the dramatic announcement in November 2012 that “fundraising income is down by 20 per cent”? The amount donated by UK adults in 2011/12 was apparently £9.3bn, down by £2.3bn in real terms on the previous year. It was based on an authoritative report – UK Giving 2012 – and came from the combined stables of the Charities Aid Foundation and NCVO.

The report was impressive, but it was built on survey results. The authors made no attempt to hide this fact – the ‘amounts donated’ were described as ‘estimated’ and they were clear about the source of the information. But the report was written in such definitive terms that many people were alarmed and took it as fact. Certainly CAF got a great deal of publicity out of it and the government expressed its concern.

Was the survey right? The UK Civil Society Almanac published last month by NCVO and the Third Sector Research Centre shows that, far from individual donations decreasing by 20 per cent, they actually increased by 3 per cent. Surely I’m not the only one to smile and then feel peeved at the spectacular error in CAF’s prediction. The figures may not be completely comparable but the trend is absolute.

CAF seems unable to apologise for their poor prediction and in their much-reduced 2012/13 survey (UK Giving 2012/13), published recently, still proudly announce that: “The UK Giving project has become a valuable source of information about levels of individual giving in UK.” You know, I don’t think so, though perhaps their intention to morph it into a quarterly survey may have merit. I was not surprised that in March, NCVO announced they were no longer prepared to be part of the project.

The increase of 3 per cent in individual giving reported in the Almanac should not divert our attention away from a regrettable reduction in charity income from government sources of 8.7 per cent in real terms. The latest figures reported by the Charity Commission, in a comparison of 2013 with the previous year, showed an increased income for the sector of 5 per cent. I suppose this 5 per cent is the same as the Almanac’s 3 per cent – it is a similar period, with slightly different dates.

As ever, I’m impressed by the sharp eyes of the commentator Andrew Papworth, who pointed out that if you then take out inflation, the rise becomes little more than a laboured crawl upwards. Worse than that, Papworth shows that if you remove the top 1,005 charities with incomes of £10m or more, the other 99.4 per cent of charities are in dire straits with declining incomes.

Our sector desperately needs decent data. We need comparative data, not just at sector level, nor even at charity level, but at the level of fundraising source. We need to know comparative percentages between all charities – the percentage of legacy or online income, income from regular monthly gifts and so on. We need a source of comparative data to establish norms.

The only accurate source is the Charity Commission but what a mess they’re in, underfunded for the tasks they struggle to take on. In my view, the sector, led by the Institute of Fundraising, has to pay independent contractors to download the files and run them through standardised comparison programmes. No doubt charities would have to express their information more succinctly and in a required format.

Until a few years ago, comparative figures routinely appeared in a book produced by CAF. It was really useful. But they got over-ambitious and tried to make it a riveting read. Fundraisers only ever read the CAF books for the ten or so pages of comparative data. The rest was speculation and of limited value.

Perhaps the Institute could add a surcharge to the membership fees for charities and sector service companies. Those that paid the surcharge would have access to the information. The sector needs this stuff badly. In the US it comes from Blackbaud, here we waste money doing surveys.

Stephen Pidgeon is a trustee of the Institute of Fundraising, a consultant and visiting professor of direct response fundraising at the University of Plymouth.