Can you, and should you, encourage better giving?



Martin Brookes

Martin Brookes

I’m going to ask you a question and I want you to be honest. How many of you feel a little bit annoyed when you hear that a widow has left her entire inheritance to the local cats’ home, rather than, say, her local hospice? Or how many of you believe that a gift to an art gallery isn’t quite as ‘worthy’ as a donation to a charity tackling child abuse?

Like it or not, we all make judgements every day about how other people give. Whether we can, and should, make such judgements is another question.

Making judgements about people’s giving could encourage people to put more thought into their donations, hopefully leading to better giving. But in the UK we give on average just 1 per cent of our income to charity, a percentage that has remained flat over a long period of rising prosperity. According to CAF/NCVO, the number of people giving has also fallen by 10 per cent over the last decade. That is equivalent to one in eight of us stopping giving altogether.

These low giving levels make efforts to encourage better giving seem slightly irrelevant. Should we instead be finding ways to simply encourage more giving, regardless of where it goes? Do we run the risk of actually putting more people off giving by making judgements, thereby decreasing total giving?

The key question, of course, is how you could define which causes are more deserving. It implies some sort of system that defines one charitable act as better than another. But it is unclear whether such a system is possible, and who would decide these definitions.

Even with such a system, it is not clear whether it would change donors’ behaviour. People simply don’t want more information on charities. A recent YouGov survey showed that less than half of donors would be interested in an independent charity rating system. Donors are confident that the choices they are making are the right ones, or they just don’t care either way.

This lack of donor interest in choosing the right cause is supported by evidence from the US. Research by Hope Consulting shows that only 35 per cent of donors spend any time researching charities and two thirds don’t want to validate their choice of where to give. Only a tiny number of donors are looking to give wisely to the right causes.

I don’t want us to do anything that will discourage giving in the UK. We already have a negative attitude towards giving by rich people in this country that needs to change. The response by Baroness Warnock following the Giving Pledge announcement in the States was to say ‘I can’t help but applaud this initiative.’ The natural British response, as demonstrated by Baroness Warnock, seems to be to want to frown upon or mock those who publicly give large amounts to charity.

We should be looking to find ways to encourage more giving in the UK, not condemning it. But we should also accept that some acts of giving are better than others. How to encourage donors to give more, and to give more thoughtfully, is an issue we need to debate.

Martin Brookes is chief executive of New Philanthropy Capital. He will be giving a lecture on ‘The morality of charity’ at the RSA in London on 29 September. You can read more of Martin’s views on NPC’s blog at


Tagged in: Charity analysis New Philanthropy Capital

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