Marketing the charity sector’s spending on marketing

A brief survey of public attitudes towards charity makes for interesting reading. The poll, conducted by the Free Postcode Lottery website, which had a decent sample size of 2,000 people, found that one in four of us think we don’t give enough to charity. 25% isn’t a vast amount, but it would be 15 million people in the UK if the figures were representative (no one is saying they are….) but even if that over-estimated the proportion by 100% it would still mean there were over 7 million people in the UK who might – under the right circumstances give more to charity.

It’s perhaps not surprising to find that over three-quarters of respondents said they were put off from giving money to charity by the marketing practices used by fundraisers. Recent public scandals over fundraising and the very public collapse of Kids Company having received almost £50m of public money have damaged the sector’s reputation. Something I am not convinced that the Etherington Review or NCVO’s and ACEVO’s plans to tackle negative stories will address. This is not just a question of perception – that people see the headlines and need to be reassured that these stories of poor financial management and unethical fundraising are the exception to the rule. People have also experienced first-hand some of the pressurised selling that some charities – and the private companies they contact to fundraise – employ. If we regard this solely as an issue of perception we will never restore confidence and trust in charity.

The third, and final, finding from the survey is that nearly half of respondents say they would give more to charity if they spent less on marketing. Part of me wants to focus on the question’s methodological limitations – we know already of course that three-quarters of people have said they think they give enough to charity already. So it’s difficult to infer too much from this question. Are the half who say they would give more made up of the 25% of respondents who say they don’t give enough – and here is an excuse for them to justify why they don’t? However, even if we assume that half the half (a quarter in total) are inclined to give more anyway. The other 25% are saying that, though they feel they give enough already, they would give more if charities spent less on marketing.

I wonder though how well informed respondents are? Do they know what charities spend on marketing? Which charities? The fact is that the amounts spend vary as wildly as the budgets of charities themselves do – both in actual terms and as a proportion of their budgets. Apparently total charity spending on advertising was £394m in 2013 – a mere 2% of the total of the advertising market worth almost £14bn that year. In the same year the total expenditure of the charity sector was £38bn. So the figures suggest the charity sector as a whole spent around 10% of its money on marketing. That doesn’t sound tremendously excessive.

In that sense I do think it’s a question of addressing perception. I suspect that if people thought charities were spending around 10% of their money on marketing the public might be more sympathetic. Whether or not they would give more to charity is quite another matter though.