Are digital innovations prompting young people to give to charity again?

There’s a surprising statistic in the Mintel report Charitable Giving UK (November 2014). In the three months to July 2014 the average charity donation by eighteen to nineteen year olds was £46.

Let’s get the caveats out of the way. This was the average for those who had given any money to charity (many eighteen/nineteen year olds will have donated nothing in the three months). Charitable donations by the young have been declining for decades and when people participate less in an activity, those still participating are less typical of their peers. Also, mean donation figures tend to be high, boosted by a small minority who donate a lot (especially in these days of the super-rich 1%). Median donation figures often sound more believable.

Still, despite all this, what is remarkable is how the mean donation figure for eighteen to nineteen year olds compares to other age groups. At £46 it is higher than the figure for twenty to twenty-four year olds (£39), twenty five to thirty four year olds (£37) and all other age groups up to the sixty-five plus.

The over sixty-fives gave an average donation of £62. This age group are over-represented in the 9% of people who make up two thirds of all charitable donations. They are a group with a tradition of charitable giving and they are more likely to belong to organisations that collect for charitable work (churches, for example). They are, of course, in their twilight years and they will leave a big hole in the coffers of charities when they die.

Which is why the spike in average donations amongst the eighteen to nineteen year olds will be interesting to charities. Is it a blip or a green shoot? Mintel believe it might be evidence of the effect of social media. Some of the charitable spirit of the social organisations of yesteryear might be recaptured in the social spirit of Facebook and Twitter et al.

Young people are not without charitable instincts, of course. The Charities Aid Foundation describes young people as some of the most engaged in our society and willing to make a difference, “the idealism of youth remains but must be nurtured and given the opportunity to flourish”.

In fact, YouGov noted in 2013 that 25% of eighteen to twenty four year olds believe it is a civic duty to give to charity. That compares to 23% amongst the over sixties. Given the differing amounts they both contribute to charity, it is surprising that the young believe in this civic duty slightly more than (or at least as much as) the old.

Young people are very likely to give their time volunteering for charity. The Government’s Community Life Survey reports that 74% of 16-24 year-olds have volunteered in the past year (compared to 41% for all adults). According to The National Union of Students, 31% of students volunteer.

They might have the time and inclination to volunteer, but they have less financial clout than ever. The recent downturn has led to an increase in youth unemployment. David Willetts, the Conservative MP, suggested in his book, The Pinch, that wealth has been channelled away from the young (by events like the rise in house prices and the decline of middle class jobs) to the Baby Boomer generation.

All this makes the young unlikely donors. However, it isn’t just financial hardship standing in the way of their charitable giving. In 2014 the Charities Aid foundation noted “giving platforms aren’t keeping pace with the technology that young people use in their daily life”.

Lloyds UK believes many charities are the most digitally immature of all the nation’s SMEs. The Lloyds UK Business Digital Index 2015 says half of all charities receive only a fifth of donations online. Mintel say 59% of people have done nothing to support charities online in the last year (46% amongst 16-24s and 48% amongst 25-34s).  Nick Young, Head of Halifax Current Accounts said: “With ever increasing numbers of our customers choosing the convenience of online and mobile banking, it is surprising that many are not embracing the digital age when it comes to charitable donations.”

The Halifax believe that 66% of all charity giving is via cash donations. However, I met several young people in focus groups who tell me they don’t carry cash. That seems incredible to older generations but qualitative research associates tell me that this is something they are increasingly coming across.

No wonder The Institute of Fundraising report that 54% of charities are seeking new sources of income. Digital sources have to be high on their priority list. If they don’t learn to use digital channels they will lose out to those who do – from competitor charities to private individuals. Consider Yimby (Yes In My Back Yard), for example. It is the crowd-sourcing arm of JustGiving. It allows private individuals to develop and collect for their own causes without affiliation to an organised charity. Charities should see such initiatives as threats.

What steps are charities taking towards collecting the digital dollar?

Near Field Communication offers a big opportunity. If you can tap your phone onto a charity shop window or the NFC enabled wristband of a chugger, you can give to charity even if you don’t carry change in your skinny jeans. A clever use of NFC came from Unicef who gave out stickers to people who donated in the street. They then requested that the donor asked their friends and family to donate, simply by tapping their phones to the sticker now stuck to their lapel. Donor was instantly recruited as casual volunteer.

Social media is also being adopted by charities. Young donors especially report that their motivation to give to charity is being part of a community and not being left out. The selfie theme is a popular one. Since the No Make Up Selfie campaign by Cancer Research UK (which raised £8 million), there has been a Wake Up Call selfie (UNICEF ask people to take selfies when they have just woken up), a Not By My Selfie (AgeUK asks people to take selfies with elderly relatives) and Last Selfie (WWF “selfies” are supposedly taken by endangered species and posted on Snapchat where the selfies self destruct as the endangered species might if not helped).

Gamification is also an emerging tactic. An online game can put players in the shoes of those the charity helps. A player is faced with life choices and it becomes clear that, for many, life choices are hard, with rarely a perfect answer. The consequences of those choices can be severe. An example is Give Girls Power, an online game created by Save the Children.

A really clever use of gamification came from Cancer Research UK. It takes scientists up to 18 months to classify cells. This is why they developed a ‘game’ called Cell Slider where ordinary people learn how to analyse real life cancer data and so actually contribute to the research.

The digital space allows charities to be very creative in attracting the attention of donors. For every digital trend, NFC, gamification, selfies etc., there is probably an application for charities. They represent great ways to engage the young.

It might just be that Mintel have noticed an early and encouraging ‘green shoot’ and the trend away from charity giving amongst the under sixties may yet turn. The big challenge for charities will be standing out. They will need the digital skills but also the imagination to engage people in new and eye-catching ways.

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