Why do we treat donors like mushrooms?
YouGov published an interestingpiece of research last week looking at attitudes to charity performance.
They found that just 40% of British adults were interested in a grading system (something similar to Charity Navigator in the USA) that would allow potential donors to assess the relative performance of UK charities.
That’s a surprisingly small number of people.
Particularly when you take into account the fact that the same survey found 68% of people would transfer their donations away from a charity if they discovered it was performing badly.
On the surface, It’s all a little confusing. Martin Brookes of New Philanthropy Capital muses that donors might think they have enough information already or that they don’t actually want any more insight into how their gifts are spent.
As he rightly points out in his recent blog post, it would be surprising if donors feel they have enough information as…
“The quality of information provided by charities about their work and, crucially, their impact is poor”.
Which leaves us looking at the alternative and wondering why donors might not want any more information?
I think the answer is that donors have learnt that when it comes to charities, they expect to be treated a little like mushrooms – left in the dark and fed on manure.
As a result, their expectations are rather low. And we shouldn’t be surprised that their thoughts often match their surroundings.
I wrote about some nfpSynergy research a few months back that asked donors to estimate how much charities spent on support costs. The answer was shocking – donors thought that an average of 40% of income was spent on admin and 35% was spent on fundraising. That leaves just 25% left over to fund the work the donor actually cares about.
Understand this and you start to appreciate the real reason why donors don’t seem to be clamoring for a grading system. I suspect that they feel that they might discover some upsetting facts…
1. That their gifts might not count for much.
2. That they will have made the wrong decisions about which charity to give to.
In the commercial world, this type of emotion is well understood. It’s calledcognitive dissonance. After spending a significant sum on a new car for example, people worry if they have made the right decision. That causes a feeling of discomfort that they want to reduce. It’s why many advertisements for high ticket items are aimed at current owners.
It’s exactly the same for gifts to charities. A site that might make you feel a twit is hardly going to be something that you’ll be making a bee-line to on launch date, particularly if at the back of your mind you think you might have made a poor decision.
Take some of the other findings uncovered by the research – 68% of people think that a charity grading system wouldn’t affect their giving behaviour even though 42% of respondents state knowing the results achieved by a charity influences their decision to donate.
It all points to people wanting to believe their decisions have been the right ones. I haven’t seen the full set of research tables but I’d bet it’s younger people who make up the bulk of people in favour of charity grading as they haven’t got decades of charity decisions to justify to themselves.
I’d also expect to see a fair number of ABs in favour too. The larger the gift, the greater the potential for negative emotion should something go wrong.
It’s something we’ve often seen in Bluefrog’s qualitative research amongst high net worth individuals and legators – particularly when they don’t have an emotional commitment to a specific charity.
When they are considering a large gift and have decided on which cause they want to support, efficiency and amount spent on administration are the two most important factors used to select which organisation they will give to.
But as with most other donors, they revert to the norm when it comes to small gifts. Just like everyone else, their giving can be very much on a whim.
Our goal as fundraisers is to turn the whims (and solid reasons) that bring donors into contact with our charities into ongoing commitment. We don’t do that by having a cool brand or rolling out a string of appeals punctuated with poorly constructed newsletters that talk about the values and general approach of the charity.
We do it by demonstrating the impact of the donor’s gift. This is the only way that we can make giving relevant, engaging and fulfilling. And luckily, it’s also happens to be a pretty good way for donors to judge us as well.
Update: The research is also discussed on Tactical Philanthropy. The comments there are also worth reading.
Photo credit: Cyanocorax