UK philanthropists have given £15bn to charities. It should be more

More charities and less public funding means philanthropy is a growing lifeline. Much can be learned from the US, where $358bn is collected annually

Any fundraiser with experience of working in the UK and the US will know that the culture of major gift philanthropy differs greatly between the two nations. But the news that donations of £1m or more reached a record £1.83bn in 2016, shows the tide is changing. Philanthropists have donated £15bn to charitable causes over the past decade, providing a lifeline as public funding decreases, and the future of EU funding hangs in the balance.

How can British charities capitalise on donors’ growing philanthropic intentions? In my role as a fundraising and philanthropy advisor, I’m often asked what British fundraisers can learn from their American cousins, who attract contributions of $358bn a year. A lack of publicly funded infrastructure and tax incentives for donors in the US has created a well established culture of private philanthropy.

We’re in the midst of a remarkable opportunity to activate philanthropy on an unprecedented level. But we have to get our approach right. Make a case for need and a case for support

UK philanthropists often assume society’s significant public needs are funded by the state. As a result, fundraisers will focus on making the case for why contributors should give to charity at all. In the US, there are almost twice as many charities per capita, so fundraising instead focuses on “why this charity” (rather than a charity with a similar mission down the street).

Increasingly, charities in the UK are also finding they need to stand out from the crowd. From 1999-2016 the number of charities worth over £10m, more than tripled to 1,191. Government funding also became more scarce – charities lost £3.8bn in government grants from 2003-2013. And competition for wealthy donors skyrocketed – a survey by the University of Southampton, published in 2011, found affluent areas are served by three times as many charities as deprived ones. Suffice it to say, the case for need (why charity) and the case for support (why this charity) are two very different things. In this climate, you need both.

Use your trustees strategically

Trustees are a huge untapped resource for UK charities, but one that US charities regularly capitalise on. It’s common in the US for charities to have a “give or get” policy, meaning trustees either have to donate or fundraise a certain amount. This is determined by the charity’s turnover, fundraising capacity, and input from current board members or the founding chair. I’ve worked with charities in the past that asked for as little as $10,000 or as much as $500,000.

While I don’t necessarily think the “give” component should be required in the UK, directly encouraging trustees to embrace fundraising can lead to enormous opportunities. Even if they don’t do any asking for donations directly, they can facilitate valuable introductions.

Retain donors with tiered membership schemes

In the US, fundraisers regularly use tiered membership schemes to incentivise donors to renew and increase their giving over time. For example, if you donate £X, you get access to exclusive benefits and events alongside your philanthropic peers. If you donate more, there is an even more exclusive group awaiting you. Access to community is a powerful retention tool, and the majority of UK charities don’t yet offer this. Get creative about what benefits you can offer your major donors.

Be direct with relationship building

I’m a programme officer for several UK Foundations. Every time I meet with an American fundraiser, I receive an email shortly afterwards referencing something interesting we spoke about, a direct follow up of next steps, and an effusive thank you (with exclamation marks!). For whatever reason, this rarely happens with the British fundraisers. And while I may never win the exclamation mark battle with my British colleagues, the one thing we all agree on is that enthusiasm, warmth and passion are the qualities that stick.

Claim your impact – even as an intermediary

There is a lot to be learned from the way American charities claim their impact. Intermediaries such as think tanks or grant makers don’t separate themselves from the ultimate beneficiary, but make it easy for donors to understand how X leads to Y. Don’t be afraid to take credit for the work you’ve played a part in.

  • Rachel Stephenson Sheff is an advisor at I.G. Advisors, a social impact strategy and management consultancy.

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Rachel Stephenson Sheff

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