I’ve been wondering over the last little while whether the charitable sector might be one of the most competitive in the country.
How many charities are there? Well, we start with the Charity Commission figures ie the number of registered charities. That’s about 170,000 – and it grows every year. However, on top of that figure there are thought to be around 80,000 exempt charities which cannot register with the Charity Commission and are regulated in other ways. You can add to that the estimated 10,000 exempted charities and another 100,000 unregistered charities (whose income is too low to require registration with the Charity Commission). Oh, and that’s just England and Wales. So, without including Scotland and Northern Ireland, we are already at around 360,000 (roughly one for every 152 people who live in England). That’s not to say that the spread is even across the country – the measure of charities per 1,000 of the population is reported to show that charity density is higher in the more prosperous regions of England, which – in the context of charity – might seem the wrong way around.
Compared to the number of companies in England, 360,000 is still quite a small number and even smaller still compared to the number of businesses. However, a reason why charities have it tough is because charitable giving is generally thought to be a zero sum game ie the amount of total charitable giving in a year remains fairly constant. So – to some extent – charities are competing with each other for the same pot. This makes debates about how much charities spend on fundraising all the more complicated and pertinent.
Of course, some charities exist outside of this world to some extent, because they can rely on the income from substantial endowments and it is obviously the case that size and scale across the charities sector varies wildly. Although the wealth of all registered charities is estimated at over £483bn, £66bn (or 14%) of that is held by the 10 richest charities (that’s less than 0.01% of the registered charities in England).
The need for some smaller charities in particular is volunteer time as much as money. But money and time are not the only thing that charities are competing for – they are also looking for awareness – their place in the public consciousness. A common way to achieve this is through awareness days, weeks and months. That is also an increasingly crowded field. Although it is hard to find central database, November alone includes Trustee’s Week, National Stress Awareness Day, Talk Money Week, Transgender Awareness Week, Anti-Bullying Week, Road Safety Week, Sugar Awareness Week, World Diabetes Day, Islamophobia Month, Mouth, Pancreatic and Lung Cancer Awareness Month, World Vegan Day, World Town Planning Day, International Day for Tolerance, National Tree Week, World Children’s Day and so many more.
This is not a uniquely English problem. There is an article in the Los Angeles Times from back in 1990 about what are referred to as “national commemoratives” ie days, weeks, months or even years that are recognised by the US government to honour various people, events and causes. The article cites “public service observances such as Historically Black College Week and Literacy Day to less lofty undertakings like National Tap Dance Day and National Mule Day” and records attempts to introduce legislation to set up a presidential advisory commission on the issue.
Is all this a problem or perhaps just the product of a healthy and lively third sector? Subscribers to Effective Altruism might call for more focus and rationalisation so that our collective efforts achieve the best outcomes. However, what we cannot ignore in all this is the fact that people give their time, effort and money to causes which they care about – and that personal touch and passion (so long as it is truly charitable) perhaps should not be controlled. Indeed, it is what drives the giving in the first place. Although – if charitable giving really is a zero sum game – I cannot help but feel that there is something a bit uncomfortable about elements of charitable fundraising spend particularly as we face an economic slowdown and the competition for charitable funds may well get fiercer. Perhaps the answer to that is in the hands of donors who could weigh this up when making their giving decisions, assuming they are provided with the requisite information.
How do charities find their way in this crowded world? How can they differentiate themselves and stand out? Those may be the wrong questions for many charities. For locally focussed charities, they may be able to reach their beneficiaries and spread their message in a way which does not bring them into the same arena as other charities. However, for other charities, these are very relevant questions. You hear of competition between charities, even whilst funders often want greater collaboration. The sheer number of charities does make you wonder whether some consolidation in the charitable space could produce better outcomes in certain areas.