The General Selection; how do donors choose their charities?

Having recently completed my masters’ dissertation – exploring the processes parents go through in choosing state primary schools for their children – the concept of choice has been on my mind, not only in relation to this subject but for the charity sector too.

Having recently completed my masters’ dissertation – exploring the processes parents go through in choosing state primary schools for their children – the concept of choice has been on my mind, not only in relation to this subject but for the charity sector too.

At nfpSynergy, our goal is to help non-profits thrive and understanding the processes the public go through in ‘choosing’ a charity to support is fundamental to this aim. Deciding where your child will spend the formative years of their education is more than a little different from choosing which charity you’ll give a few quid a month to, but a few of the issues involved are surprisingly relevant.    

Schools are under growing pressure to make more information available to parents on their performance and use of public funding. Similarly, recent years have seen charities increasingly compelled to prove their impact to donors and show where public donations are spent. So, with more information available to them, will we see donors making objective comparisons between charities to ‘choose’ the best performer to support?

The idea that donors should consider charities’ relative impact and efficiency relies on both capacity and desire to make an objective choice. For some donors, such objectivity is central to their donating behaviour. The growing interest in movements such as effective altruism – which emphasises the need to prioritise when donating in order to do the most societal good – are premised on the belief that choice of charity should be rational and impact-driven. 

However, decision-making processes, whether about schools, charity donations or even which car or phone to buy, are complex and contradictory and vary between individuals. Decisions about anything, including whether to donate to a particular charity, are rarely entirely ‘rational’; personal experience, attitudes and inclinations will often come into play. For example, research from our Charity Awareness Monitor demonstrates the importance of knowing someone with a condition in driving support for particular health causes.

Further, whilst we might imagine decisions about which charity to support to be fairly personal or private, there is often a social element. Families and friends may be influenced by each other’s choice of charity, much as parents follow friends and families’ school choices. Or, as recent social media events like the ice bucket challenge have shown, the nomination effect can lead a wave of support for a particular charity, with the social pressure to take part perhaps making the concept of ‘choice’ (and certainly rational choice) relatively redundant.

In addition, for many potential donors, the idea of taking an objective, cost benefit type approach to charity choice feels time-consuming, complex or frankly stressful. Earlier this year, nfpSynergy carried out some focus groups with donors to explore their perceptions of charities. We found that although all participants had concerns about money getting to the cause and wanted to be reassured that charities were using donations wisely, most lacked the time or inclination to trawl through accounts or annual reports to investigate charities themselves.

In a choice-obsessed society, we are asked to make a multitude of choices every day, from the mundane to the potentially life-altering. Perhaps the idea of expending effort worrying about another choice was too much, leaving some donors to just give and hope for the best. The fear is that when public mistrust in the sector collides with reluctance to spend time and energy on choosing between charities, certain potential donors may ‘choose’ not to give at all.

So, how can charities navigate these issues and appeal to different types of charity choosers? The first thing to say is that impact evaluation, accountability and transparency remain vitally important. Most donors do want to be reassured that they are making a well-informed ‘choice’ and that charities are not hiding anything, they just don’t want to do the digging.

Our focus groups demonstrated the desire for simple quality indicators (many made comparisons to Ofsted grades for schools), such as reassurance that charities are regulated as well as snappy stats and simple charts to put across messages about impact, transparency and accountability. Thus, it’s not that the public aren’t interested in choosing wisely, they just want the process of choice to be a little simpler.

However, many donors need more than the stats. For choosers driven by feelings of connection to a cause, humanising the facts and figures through case studies or personal pleas from beneficiaries may provide the emotional pull required to be convinced of the charity’s worth. Similarly, for more social choosers, ways of interacting with charities through social media and events and of recommending the charity to friends and family may make your organisation their charity of choice.

Choice is complex and so are potential donors. Understanding the varying processes of decision-making they go through and differentiating your communications accordingly may be key to driving support.

Look out for our forthcoming Getting the Message Across report. It gives lots more recommendations of how to challenge the public’s concerns about charity operations and get your message across through clear, concise communications. 


It's not Choose-day, but you can still let us know your thoughts by leaving us a comment below.


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