Philanthropy, and in particular financial charitable giving, is “so 2010”, says the Guardian’s editorial last Saturday. The politics of individual giving is certainly on the agenda of late, not least because of the news of the 40 American billionaires committing to a “giving pledge” and signing-up to give half of their fortunes to charity. How much of a ‘successful trend’ philanthropic giving has become is rather debatable, however. Back over in Blighty, and making slightly less of a glam splash across both the broadsheets and the tabloids, was last month’s suggestion from the Minister for Civil Society that all who are “financially able” should give 1% of their income to charity. This was the first step from the coalition government to push the charitable giving aspect of the Big Society, where as part of the five cornerstones needed to deliver the Big Society, ministers have pledged to “take a range of measures to encourage charitable giving and philanthropy”.

If this is one of the key methods the coalition government hope to help the voluntary sector cope with the slashing of the £13bn it spends each year on the charity sector, then they may be in for an unpleasant surprise. The latest Citizenship Survey has found that charitable giving has declined over the past five years, whilst the average donation per head has remained static. Recent research also found that donor recruitment has significantly fallen on both the street and the doorstep. And only a fortnight after Nick Hurd urged us to part with 1% of our income, research found that more than a fifth of people plan to significantly reduce the amount of money they donate regularly to charity. One-off individual giving to global disaster relief also appears to be suffering, with British public donations to the Pakistani flooding currently flowing at a slower rate than previous appeals, despite ex-PM Gordon Brown insisting this morning that there is not a giving or compassion fatigue in the UK.

So, if the government really does want charitable giving to become a part of the Big Society, what needs to change? What works and what doesn’t? Innovative and attractive ways for individuals to give must be sought, as well as assurances it will indeed make a difference. Donating by text for example provides an easy and accessible way for us to give, however news that as little as four-fifths of money donated by text reaches good causes will hardly inspire the British public to give more. The government needs to ask other key questions if it is serious in encouraging us to give more in times of austerity, for example who gives and who doesn’t? The Pathways through Participation project’s literature review concluded that the typical charitable givers are likely to be professional, white, females more than males, over 24, religiously affiliated and living in a childless household; interestingly it also found that higher earners are more likely to give, but not proportionately.

Key to the success of the Big Society, we also need to ask how the way people give to charity impacts on and links to other forms of participatory behaviour such as public engagement and volunteering. The Pathways through Participation project is exploring how and why trends of individual participation start, continue, and connect throughout the life course. Reacting to research such as this, the government may begin to get an idea how individual giving and other forms of participation can go beyond being a ‘trend’, and instead be shaped into part of a sustainable and enduring Big Society.

Eddie Cowling