Foundations have an important role to play in helping ‘unpopular’ charitable causes


Alison Body


Well regarded philanthropists and foundations can send powerful messages about the worthiness and legitimacy of a cause’

Rising to the Challenge: A Study of Philanthropic Support for Unpopular Causes’ highlights the debate about the disparities in the destination and distribution of funding across charitable causes. The report focuses on the charities that represent perceived ‘Cinderella’ causes and identifies the top ten most ‘unpopular causes’ – including mental health care, refugees, and ex-offenders. While the study recommends steps for charities who want to overcome these challenges, it raises important questions for donors and foundations.

The report is based on research in the UK, but philanthropists in other countries may also find useful lessons in it.

How donors give can present a barrier for charities in approaching foundations and philanthropists for funding. Do donors give to the causes they feel are most worthy, or do they give because they are asked? The reality is – a bit of both. Donors’ decisions are driven by personal taste, experience and empathy for the cause in question; however, being asked remains the single biggest factor in donor giving, meaning that most donors and funders are unlikely to seek out charitable causes beyond their normal frame of reference or experiences. This can mean that it is difficult for charities outside of this framework to gain funders’ attention, so they need to work even harder to make their cause visible and compelling. This gives rise to a number of barriers charities need to overcome to maximise their philanthropic reach, including how they frame their cause, how and who they ask, and whether they invest in fundraising.

Such barriers can affect a charity’s confidence in asking for support. The research that underpinned this report suggested that few charitable causes are so unpopular that they cannot engage donor support ; instead we found that charities who perceive themselves to be unpopular are simply often less likely to ask, thus creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. The 2014 Garfield Weston Foundation report , ‘An insight into the future of charity funding in the North East’, highlighted this trend, suggesting increased reliance on government funding and decreases in investment in fundraising as partly to blame. So the result is further disconnect between donors and these causes.

Considering this, another question must be: should foundations and donors take extra steps to support these causes? I would argue yes, and here’s why – the impact of funding these causes can have a three-fold effect:

  • Success attracts success. Many donors will look for ‘big name’ supporters to act as useful proxies for assessing a charity’s calibre. Well-regarded philanthropists and foundations can send powerful messages about the worthiness and legitimacy of a cause, attracting further support.
  • Building confidence. Foundations can act as the bridge between government funding and individual donor support. With such a perilous and uncertain future involved in state funding, charities reliant on this income seek to expand their income base and often cite trusts and foundations as an easier way to build confidence in their ask before going directly to donors.
  • Lasting partnerships. By the very definition of being ‘unpopular’ these causes are unlikely to attract a wide range of funders. This gives foundations a unique opportunity to form partnerships with charities, promoting unique causes and projects that raise the profile of the charitable cause and of the foundation, without being ‘crowded out’ by a large number of other supporters.

The UK is a generous country but that generosity is not evenly spread. By actively seeking to support these more unpopular causes, foundations are in a privileged position of being able to help redress this balance.

Alison Body, research associate, Centre for Philanthropy, University of Kent.

Comments (1)


Thanks for the article, I was just looking for information about research on charitable foundations.

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