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Tuesday’s child: charity (Seven days of social science research)

Tuesday’s child: charity (Seven days of social science research)

I think that people need to know much more
about what the role played by charities in our society is. I don’t think most people
know what organisations are charities, and I think they’d be pretty surprised if they
found out that some of our biggest arts institutions, our national galleries, our museums, are all
dependent on philanthropy to one extent or another. People need to understand that charities
are playing a huge role in our society, and that they are being expected to do more. I knew that we had a hugely rich source of
data on giving, in the surveys of household expenditure which the Office of National Statistics
carries out every year. About 15 years ago I had commisioned some work looking at trends
in giving, so when I came here it was an ideal opportunity to update that work, and to look
at what had happened over 30 years. One of the big issues that we wanted to look
at was whether, as people have got wealthier, they’ve given more to charity. Have we got
more generous? But we were also interested in the extent to which changing social attitudes,
developing technology, global communications and so on had influenced the amount that people
give to charity. What we found was that in the population at
large giving had barely changed over 30 years. We’re still giving about the same proportion
of our spending to charity now as we did 30 years ago. But there’s quite an important
reason for that. The wealthy are giving more, but at the same time participation rates in
giving have been dropping steadily, and they’ve been dropping particularly amongst the younger
age groups. So what’s happened over time is that we’ve become increasingly dependent on
a small group of wealthier, older donors. The amount that people give has always been
directly related to wealth, so as the wealth gap has widened, so has the giving gap – and
that’s quite a worrying finding, and one which government would like to address through making
giving much easier, for a much wider range of people. It’s difficult to say why older
people are giving more. It is partly that they have had more wealth, I mean they are
a wealthy generation, but it may also be something to do with different attitudes, and a belief
in what charities are doing. Young people may be a little bit more questioning. We were very interested in looking at the
extent to which the recession had an effect on giving: Does it make people more generous?
Does it make them less generous? – and what we found was that although giving does go
down a bit in periods of recession, it doesn’t go down as much as other areas of spending,
so people do tend to maintain their giving as far as they can. So that was quite an interesting
finding. However, we haven’t got full findings for the current recession, and we think this
is more volatile, so it’s possible that giving will be more affected by this recession than
we’ve seen in the past. There is change in the causes that people
support over time. We’ve seen the hospice movement growing very fast. It’s quite clear
that people value their local hospices, and want to be able to put relatives in them for
care should they need it. Other areas that have grown over the last couple of decades
are giving to international charities, as global communications have expanded, and we’ve
understood more. We also know that international causes tend to be supported by the most highly
educated and professional people in society. Government is hoping that philanthropy and
giving more generally will play a bigger part in building society, and in creating what
they call the ‘Big Society’, and I think some of the messages from this suggest it is going
to be quite hard. I think the challenge today is actually to get more people to come into
giving, especially more wealthy people, because there are many who don’t give. What concerns me most is that social need
is going to grow, but philanthropy is not necessarily going to grow in the right areas to meet it. When people give, they give to the things they care about. It might be faith-based giving, they can be very partisan in their giving. In order to support a stronger society, we need to find people giving to a much wider range of causes.

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