The public, charities & impact: everyone’s at it

Posted 11 May 2015 | Blog | Evaluation | External Environment

In our series of posts on impact, Russell Hargrave from NPC reflects on what the public think when it comes to charities and the difference they make.

The UK’s big funders may get all the publicity—the Sainsburys and the Rausings and so on—but ours is a nation of philanthropists.

Nearly everyone is at it. A small monthly direct debit here, a pound coin into a collection bucket there, the occasional sponsorship form... And, as promised in that old adage about looking after the pennies, it all adds up. The nation’s private giving came to £10.4bn in 2012/13, according to the Charities Aid Foundation; enough money to buy-up the Premier League five times over.

But numbers will only get you so far. The focus at NPC is less on how much charities raise and more on how effectively that cash is then used. Bringing in, say, a million pounds in donations is quite an achievement, but if it doesn’t eventually help a charity’s beneficiaries, then there’s really no point.

Ultimately, what sort of impact does the charity enjoy? Increasingly central to this question is the role of that army of small philanthropists: is there a public appetite among everyday donors to talk more about impact?

The short answer is yes. NPC ran a major polling project at the end of last year with Ipsos MORI, and were pleasantly surprised to learn (among many other things) that people care rather a lot about the lasting impact of their donations.

 A whopping majority of people polled last year —78%—agreed that charities should be collecting evidence about the work they were doing and acting on what they found. Asked to choose between donating to a charity driven by evidence or by values alone (‘what it thinks is right’), another majority (54% to 30%) chose evidence. (Intriguingly, though, most people thought charities were actually led by values, which suggests that there may be an advantage to fundraisers if they can get a different message out to potential supporters). Evidence matters.

Dig deeper into the polling and we can find even more cause for optimism. If supporters are confident that a charity has an impact on the ground, they are also comfortable with hearing about projects which have failed as well as those which have succeeded. That 78% support for charities that use evidence, quoted above, barely shifts when people are told that this will include information about failed projects. Donors say they will be happy to keep giving.

This is important. Like all organisations, charities hit bumps in the road as they seek the right solutions for their beneficiaries. Individual funders are smart enough to know this, and charities should be honest enough to talk a bit more about failure as well as success. As NPC’s Chief Exec put it in an interview with Third Sector magazine, ‘the public are up for an adult relationship’ with charities, one characterised by ‘openness and honesty’.

Charities talk up the generosity and decency of their supporters, and rightly so. No one is obliged to give away their money, yet millions do, year in, year out. NPC’s recent polling provides another insight: public donors have a sympathetic and even quite sophisticated understanding of impact. There may be a big advantage to charities in embracing this.

By Russell Hargrave, Media Manager for NPC.