OPINION21 December 2009

A lament for fundraising research


Fundraising bodies have been making clear their frustration at the state of research in the third sector. They’re right, says Peter Maple of London South Bank University – the lack of marketing research into charity fundraising is a disgrace.

The voluntary or ‘third’ sector is worth £33bn per year, of which more than half comes from voluntary income and nearly £10bn from individual giving according to the Charities Aid Foundation. It’s big and needs careful research in all aspects. You’d expect charities to be looking very hard at what they do and why.

Yet back in 2003 I published some research for the Directory of Social Change about the lack of investment in marketing research by charities. In a nutshell, companies spent four times as much as equivalent-sized charities. On average companies invested around 2% of turnover against less than 0.5% for marketing research of any description, by UK charities. The overall results actually ranged from almost nothing to a little under 1% in charities, whilst profit-making companies invested from 1% to more than 3% of their turnover.

Now, scroll forward to December 2009 and the resignation of Lindsay Boswell, chief executive of the Institute of Fundraising, from the advisory group for the Centre for Charitable Giving and Philanthropy at Cass Business School, and you can be pretty confident that in the intervening six years very little has really changed.

“What is really missing, apart from the hard cash, is the understanding of the returns on investment that good research can provide”

The initiative by the Institute of Fundraising to set up its own think tank is to be warmly welcomed, encouraged and supported in every way. However what is really missing, apart from the hard cash, is the understanding of the returns on investment that good research can provide. How do fundraisers and academics persuade funders that we need to know more about the environment in which we raise funds? And how do we persuade trustees (and sometimes senior management teams who ought to know better) that understanding that environment and the potential of those who support us will ultimately improve the overall return on every pound of fundraising investment?

It’s curious isn’t it? Few trustees baulk at research when it is about service delivery and understanding the needs of beneficiaries. Moreover increasing numbers of funders actually demand to see validated evaluations of need and the effects that interventions may have. So why are they so shy about the evaluation, analysis and understanding of fundraising? 

One theory is that too many people have a black box attitude to fundraising. Put a bit (as little as possible) of money in one end, turn the handle and more will come out of the other end. Even then they don’t get the cause and effect that putting more in will produce more – given a good fundraising mix. That mix, of course, includes some investment in research, testing and evaluation. Another view is that, far from being transparent about how the money is spent, many charities have an aversion to being seen as professional, prudent, strategic and fit for purpose in the 21st century. Instead they continue to propagate the myth that fundraising is a necessary evil, done for 4p in the pound by a bunch of well-meaning, but largely ineffective, volunteers.

At a recent Institute of Fundraising roundtable event I expanded upon those comments about the lack of useful fundraising research available to UK charities saying that it is a disgrace that funding is not being made available to help charities improve their effectiveness through the use of thorough, academically grounded but practical research. The contrast is extreme between the disappointing results appearing from the Centre for Philanthropic Giving at Cass Business (funded by more than £2m from the Office of the Third Sector) and the practical, usable results coming from organisations like London South Bank University and NfP Synergy (which conducts studies uniquely for the third sector and generally publishes results free of charge). These and a few other notable exceptions are producing valuable fundraising research on a shoestring whilst £500,000 of unallocated budget goes begging.

As Edward VIII famously said, “something must be done”. One could add with feeling, “and soon”.

Peter Maple is a senior lecturer and research fellow in the Centre for Charity Studies at London South Bank University. He blogs at the Association of Grumpy Old Fundraisers Who Know Stuff

1 Comment

13 years ago

You are clearly correct. I am researching for an interview as a fundraiser via legacies. I have yet to find any academic research I could use.

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