What’s the point of the Million Pound Donors Report?

There’s only one question on people’s lips when we launch each new edition of the annual ‘Coutts Million Pound Donors Report’: “Who are they?” Instead of a 30 page document full of statistics and stories about mega-giving, we’d get a much better reception if we just distributed a piece of A4 listing names and addresses. But this is research, not prospect research – and there’s a significant difference between the two, that I have written about elsewhere. The purpose of the Million Pound Donors Reports is to shine a light on the scale, scope and importance of giving at this level and to lift the lid on the experience of both making and receiving 7 (or more)-figure gifts.

The 2011 report is the fourth edition, in which yet again we describe and discuss all that we have been able to discover about charitable donations worth £1 million or more, that were made by UK donors or given to UK charities in the preceding financial year. We always begin the report by admitting upfront that we’re sure to have missed some of these biggest donations and that our data is likely to under-estimate the true value of this largest level of philanthropy. No one has a duty to report their involvement in a million pound charitable transaction, and they can be tricky to track down if they’re made anonymously, or have not appeared in an identifiable form on the public record. Nor does our report include very big donations that fall below the lower threshold of £1 million, so we cannot claim to capture all instances of significant giving, as gifts of £10,000 – £999,999 are still of great importance to the causes they benefit. But we do maintain that ‘million pound donations’ remain a useful unit of analysis because – to borrow the phrase of a donor mentioned in the 2011 report – giving a “one-er” is economically, culturally and psychologically significant to all concerned. It is the size of gift that establishes a donor amongst the ‘top rank’ of UK philanthropists.

The most recent report, launched in December 2011, covers gifts made in 2009/10 and finds that this top rank is somewhat depleted. There were decreases in both the number of separate occasions on which million pound donations were made (we found 174, compared to 201 the previous year) and in the cumulative value of these donations, which were worth £1.312 billion, compared to £1.548 billion for the preceding twelve month period. In other respects the data shows remarkable stability – Higher Education continues to be the favoured cause, almost half (44%) are worth under £2m, just 10% are worth £10m or more, and a larger fraction (52%) is ‘banked’ into charitable trusts or foundations for distribution at a later date, rather than given directly to front-line or operational charities for spending in the nearer future.

But – as anticipated – most media coverage of the report was dominated by the change (for which, read: decline) in the headline figures, despite our efforts to emphasise that it’s not sensible to read too much into the year-on-year trends in a dataset of this size. If you don’t believe us, then we quote data guru Karl Wilding, Head of Research at NCVO who says:

“They say that one swallow doesn’t make a summer, and it’s also true that one data point does not make a trend. The ups and downs in the number and value of million pound donations looks to me like the sort of natural undulation you would expect to find in this sort of dataset.”

So, what is the big story in the 2011 report, if it doesn’t reveal new names for fundraisers to pursue, nor offer a tale of doom and decline? I believe that the comparison with major giving in the US is the most interesting angle to emerge. The Million Dollar Donor List (now freely available on a swanky website www.milliondollarlist.org) charts gifts of $1m+ by calendar year, and finds a drop from $12.87 billion in 2008, to $4.97 billion in 2009 and $4.44 in 2010. That drop of more than a half far outstrips the UK’s dip of 15% – which is surely good news for a country that constantly compares itself unfavourably to the philanthropy of our Transatlantic cousins?

The whole 2011 report is available here on the University of Kent website  – please take a look, let me know what you think, and feel free to give feedback so we can improve the 2012 edition.

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