Judging charities by their covers

As a child in the 70s I used to visit the Westgate Library in Oxford. I have vivid memories of the time I made the transition from the children’s library (think bright coloured cushions and picture books) to the main adult library. There were no pictures any more nor different sizes and thicknesses and certainly no age categories. Instead, endless shelves of book spines arranged alphabetically by author. How on earth was I supposed to choose which book to take out?

I can’t remember exactly how I responded the first time. I do remember the time I adopted a strategy of selecting titles on the basis that they had bright aqua lettering as a way to narrow down my options. Needless to say I read a lot of dreadful books. I needed to come up with a better system of choosing.

The same problem of overwhelming choice can face donors. There are 160,045 charities in the UK (see link below). How on earth do you select the ones to support?

I was particularly struck by the similarity when looking at Aviva’s community award pages. Just for Bristol there were profiles of over 3,000 local charities all asking for votes to get the £1,000 award available. To choose, you either need to know one already or have an awful lot of time on your hands.

To stop being overwhelmed you need some criteria – more logical than my aqua approach. You can select by size, cause, location. Still some will be ‘better’ than others e.g. well run, making a big difference, tackling a difficult social issue, working in collaboration, influencing change. It is hard to just pull these out a random so you also need external expertise. Just as with books, charities also win prizes (e.g. GSK Impact awards) and other funders can act like a recommendation. Even better is having advice from someone who knows the sector who effectively acts as your own personal book reviewer: helping you navigate the choices by matching your preferences to the most effective charities out there. In CAF’s recent report (see link below) wealthy individual donors valued receiving professional advice. And, good news for charities, those who took advice tended to give much more.