Trends & data analysis

The most popular charitable causes

20 February 2017

And why most ‘popular’ may not always mean most ‘successful’

It might surprise you to learn that the public do not necessarily donate the largest amount of money to their ‘favourite’ causes. Yet this is the repeated finding of an nfpSynergy report looking at the general public’s giving in the UK.

In 2016, cancer was voted the ‘most popular cause’ by a long way, yet charities supporting children and young people actually received the most money (30%, ahead of medical research for the first time at 29%)[1].

This is important for charities to understand how their ‘popularity’ works – in much the same way that the polls ‘work’ around election time – popularity does not necessarily manifest itself in votes, or money!

So when a survey[2] reports that 59% of those surveyed “intend to give money to cancer-related charities in 2017” making cancer ‘the most popular charitable cause in the UK’, this needs to be qualified. (I mean it needs to be qualified anyway because heaven knows that people surveyed say that they intend to do an awful lot of good things this year (especially in January) and never quite get around to doing them.)

Slightly better is to ask people what they have already given to charity as the annual UK Giving survey does[3]. The latest survey found that the most popular causes (measured by the number of people giving to them) in 2015 were:

  1. Children and young people (30%)
  2. Medical research (29%)
  3. Animals (22%)

Looking at how much money each cause gets however tells a different story: medical research charities received most (16%), while religious charities received the second highest amount at 13% of the total pot.

Overseas aid and disaster relief, which has had a raking over the coals in recent years, received 11% of the total pot (the 4th highest amount) and, according to the nfpSynergy survey receives the largest average gift size despite smaller numbers giving: £57 (with respondents 55 years and over saying they’d donate on average £73).

At the other end of the popularity stakes lie causes such as human rights with just 18 per cent of respondents saying they’d make a donation to such a charity in 2017 according to nfpSynergy. UK Giving places arts and sports/recreation charities at the short straw end receiving the least money.

But what about those donors who give considerably more than £57? Popularity with million-pound givers can have a huge effect on charities’ income. The latest Coutts Million Pound Donor Report found that higher education was the most popular cause both in the number of donations (45) and the total amount donated (42%) – a truly popular cause.

The next most popular in terms of numbers of donations (all at 22) were:

  • Health (receiving 13.8% of the total pot)
  • Arts and Culture (8.2%)
  • Human Services and Welfare (5.7%)

International Development charities again received a smaller number of larger donations (15 donations totalling 11.5% of the pot) with donations ranging from £1m to £54m (compared with £1m to £4.7m for Education).

But of course charities do not receive all of their income from individuals, so popularity with the public is only one audience they have to worry about. Popularity with Big Business is big business for some charities:

Research shows that in the UK the largest number of companies give to social welfare (38%); health (34%); education and training (33%); religion (27%); and arts, culture, sport and recreation (25%). But looked at by money, health takes nearly one-quarter (23%) of the pot, while religion and social welfare receive 14% of the money each.

And while companies don’t give as much as they should in the UK (around £0.3bn), grant-making trusts add a healthy £2.7bn to the charity pot. Their most popular causes are education and training (24% of the money), health (11%), arts and culture (11%) and welfare (9%).

It should be borne in mind however that just because a particular cause is ‘popular’ all charities within that cause do not benefit equally. Usually it is the large charities with a known brand and money to spend on fundraising which attract larger donations (particularly from corporate or individual donors). Unfortunately it is also the case that when a large charity gets itself a bad reputation that reputation tends to spread to other charities in the same sector.

According to nfpSynergy’s Charity Awareness Monitor, the children and young people’s sector, while remaining in the top three most popular causes, has been pushed into third place by animal welfare charities, and ‘the gap is widening as the popularity of children and young people’s charities continues to show a steady decline’ in response to highly publicised recent scandal (e.g. the Rotherham abuse scandal and the Kid’s Company debacle.

Popularity can be a fickle thing.


[1] nfpSynergy asked 1,000 charity supporters to name as many of their favourite causes as they wanted, and also to give information on which charities they donated to and volunteered for.

[2] Survey of over 2,000 UK adults commissioned by Givey and conducted by Opinium Research in January 2017.

[3] The CAF survey runs over 4 months as a module on GfK NOP’s face-to-face omnibus study, interviewing 4,160 UK adults and asking about their giving over the last month. The data is then aggregated.

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Cat Walker

Dr Cat Walker has worked in the UK voluntary sector for the last 17 years, including Charities Aid Foundation where she was Head of Research from 1999-2006, and Directory of Social Change where she was Head of STEAM (Sector Trends Evidence Analysis Metrics) from 2010-2015.

Cat now works as a freelance consultant and is the founder of The Researchery – a policy-focussed, strategic research surgery for those who want to get more out of data for evidence-led social change we can all believe in.

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