Study of the existing research about charities and philanthropy

New report! demand-vs-supply1

Giving Evidence has been mapping the existing research around strategic and operational management of charitable and philanthropic activities. We are today (2nd July 2019) launching a ‘review copy’ of the findings, which you can download here.

This sits alongside a separate project which we have done to understand ‘demand’ for further research into charities and philanthropy: that was a large-scale consultation exercise, detailed here, asking charities and donors to list and prioritise the topics on which they would like more research (/ evidence / data). The results of that ‘demand’ study are here.

The press release summarises the findings of the two studies.

What we did

We investigated what research already exists about UK charities and philanthropy; the topics it does and does not cover, and the methods it uses. The study used systematic review methods, and was led by The Evidence for Policy and Practice Information and Co-ordinating Centre (EPPI Centre) at University College London, precisely because they are experts in systematic reviews but are outside the charity / philanthropy sectors. We looked at:

  • all academic journals globally for studies published since 2006 which contain data about UK charities or philanthropy (date chosen to coincide with the Charities Act of 2006); and
  • the research produced since 2006 by various UK academic centres specialising in charity / philanthropy (listed below).

What we found

Unsurprisingly, the literature is small: we found 184 relevant studies in total. That includes 109 journal articles, and 83 academic studies produced by the UK academic centres, plus some ‘grey literature’.

We found that most studies look at issues peculiar to the charity sector, such as volunteering and fundraising. Few looked at the broader literature (e.g., around management, economics, diversity, behavioural insights) and how it could be applied to charities or giving.

The largest clusters were around:

  • What works and why (37 studies). They mainly addressed donor behaviour (28 studies) e.g., mechanisms of charitable giving; fundraising activity (13) e.g., different fundraising activities such as direct mailing. Governance studies (9) investigated, for instance, the impact of government contracts. Communications (9) included studies that assessed marketing strategies.
  • Donor behaviour (28 studies), funding and income (19 studies) and fundraising (13 studies).
  • Distribution / scope of charity and philanthropic activities (12 studies).

There were some surprising gaps, and some gaps relative to the demand that we found:

  • We found few studies about impact measurement methods or involving beneficiaries (either potential or actual beneficiaries).
  • We found no studies of ‘societal outcomes’, e.g., whether / when / how charities’ campaigning and lobbying efforts succeed. This is a surprise given their historical importance and the fights for charities to retain the ability to campaign and lobby.

Given the interest in the literature about effectiveness (‘what works and why’), we were surprised to find only seven randomised controlled trials (the ‘gold standard’ for a single study to establish the effect of something), none of which was produced by a UK specialist centre. We found only seven systematic reviews, which are the best way to use all the existing studies to answer a question such as ‘what works?’.

The academic centres which specialise in charity / philanthropy whose output we analysed are at the following universities: St Andrews, Birmingham, Plymouth, Southampton, Sheffield Hallam, the Open University, Newcastle, Kent, Cass / CGAP, and the Marshall Institute at LSE.

What happens next

Both studies were funded by, and in partnership with, Charity Futures, which has announced plans to create an Institute of Charity at the University of Oxford.

The combination of these maps of the ‘supply’ of existing research and ‘demand’ reveal some priority gaps. The Institute can perhaps produce research to fill those priority gaps, and we hope that other academics will do to. We are well aware that there are other pressures on academics’ resources: we do not think that this list should dictate a research agenda, but do think that it should be an input into a research agenda.

More background

Caroline Fiennes, Director of Giving Evidence, gave a talk in November 2018 which describes the background and logic for both studies:


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