CDE project 22: the approach

Written by
The Commission on the Donor Experience
April 30, 2017

The media reports the actions of charities and their representatives selectively – and tells stories about their impact.

Many of these stories are naturally negative. Negative stories are simply more interesting to readers. However, their reporting reinforces scepticism and cynicism regarding the sector. Specifically, in aggregate, these stories go to the heart of the very issues that are known to underpin trust,1 according to the Charity Commission. 

Negative media coverage would suggest to a neutral reader that:

  • Charities do not make a difference to their cause.
  • Donations do not reach the end beneficiary.
  • Charities are poorly managed.
  • Fundraising is dishonest.
  • Charities cannot be trusted to work without external supervision. 

Now, we simply do not know how far media coverage generates or intensifies public scepticism directly. We do not really know which types of citizens are most affected by it. And we do not know in what way any negative beliefs affect donors’ real-world behaviour. Insight into this area needs more time to emerge, as well as more concerted and rigorous investigation.

We do have some very suggestive clues, however. Certainly, people say they are negatively affected by the media. For example, Harris Interactive, for Third Sector, found that media stories have made 33% of the public to think worse of charities.

From the Charity Commission’s 2016 research, we know that trust and confidence have fallen dramatically since 2014 – placing charities below social workers and ‘the general public at large’ in the overall rankings. More concerning still is the fact that trust is actually lowest among the 55-64 age group (at an index of 5.2) – a group traditionally considered the heartland of charity donors.

More encouragingly, though, we also know that existing donors – or volunteers, or beneficiaries - are much less likely to be affected by this trust gap than are non-donors. And we know that it is the less affluent social grades (C2s say…) that are generally less trusting than the higher (As, Bs and C1s).

While some charity managers might suggest that switching off poorer, disengaged donors is neither here nor there, the net effect is obvious. The smaller the common funding pool from which charities draw, the more intense the mutual competition and the more important brand loyalty becomes. 

Even here, though, the effects may be complex. An affluent, engaged donor may well trust the charity to which he or she donates personally, but falling trust across the board is still likely to deter them from switching to a less well-known competitor. 

The net effect of both these trends could well play out in a similar way to the banking sector – creating a pool of ‘trapped’ and frustrated donors who will not switch, but who will not commit fully to their existing relationship, despite abundant loyalty investments.

In this scenario, the cost of acquisition will keep on rising, but lifetime value will slow. Project 20 within the Commission’s report “Fundraising Investment” reinforces this point. While overall individual donation levels appear to be both static and resilient – broadly just tracking GDP, to date - the cost of fundraising continues to rise and the number of individuals contributing continues to fall. On average, the ROI in fundraising has fallen by around 20% in the last decade as a direct result of more charities making more and more noise in pursuit of an essentially static funding pool.

The impressionistic evidence further supports this mental model of conservative decision making. For example, the public trusts domestic charities substantially more than it does international ones, smaller ones more than bigger ones, the well known more than the unknown, and the personally relevant more than the abstract good. Intimacy is the single most critical driver of trust. The more ‘disreputable’ a picture the mainstream media paints, the more demanding donors will become.

It is against this general backdrop, without the funds to conduct any fresh, primary research that Project 22 took a simple stakeholder-engagement approach to its brief and sought to do five things:

  1. To consolidate the available evidence to understand what is actually happening to the charity sector’s reputation.
  2. To assimilate (and not duplicate) activity already underway to improve the media environment.
  3. To canvas expert opinion from industry stakeholders concerning other efforts that might prove fruitful
  4. To review a representative selection of mainstream media coverage in order to understand the underlying story drivers.
  5. To suggest some approaches to enlarge the coverage pool and rebalance the tone.



  1. Charity Commission Surveys: confidence-in-charities-2016 

Click on the image below to view project 22 in full - PDF format

About the author: The Commission on the Donor Experience

The CDE has one simple ideal – to place donors at the heart of fundraising. The aim of the CDE is to support the transformation of fundraising, to change the culture to a truly consistent donor-based approach to raising money. It is based on evidence drawn from first hand insight of best practice. By identifying best practice and capturing examples, we will enable these to be shared and brought into common use.

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