Give and Take - The challenges of measuring public generosity in the UK

October 2019
nfpSynergy is a research consultancy that aims to provide the ideas, the insights and the information to help non-profits thrive.
Introduction – our argument on the challenges of measuring giving
Understanding who gives, and why they give, helps charities to monitor giving levels and predict future income streams. However, establishing who gives and how much they give is a contentious topic. Investigating giving with the use of surveys raises two issues inherent in all surveys: the possibility of sampling error and being dependent on respondents’ self-reporting.
Self-reporting is prone to both recall error and social desirability bias, as respondents either forget the details and/or are influenced by a wish to be seen as a good person.
This does not mean that all surveys are futile or a waste of resources. What it does mean is that the reporting of survey findings and how they are understood and interpreted by all concerned stakeholders is of critical importance. Findings should not be reported as irrefutable truths about what is being given.
Asking people about their giving patterns is to ask about their perceptions about what they could or should be giving. Therefore, a drop in giving levels may indicate that people are worrying more about what they can afford to give and about their own economic circumstances, rather than necessarily giving less in actuality.
We have long cautioned against using such surveys to extrapolate statistics such as the UK’s total annual donations. People need to be made aware of the volatility of such surveys, that multiple surveys show contrasting findings, and that there are alternative sources of data. Whilst it may weaken the headline and require considerable thought and discussion to express, generalisations extrapolated from survey findings should not be reported on as objective facts. Caveats are needed.
Good reporting will also show a distinction between the findings that are shown by the survey and the interpretation being placed on these findings, whether this is added by the researchers themselves, policymakers, the media or other stakeholders.
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