In this series, Ave founder Ellie Thompson investigates the role of trust within the context of charitable giving. When fundraising online, is there a relationship between the giving behaviour of a donor and their trust in the fundraiser?  And what opportunities does this knowledge present to help us improve perceptions of the charity sector?

The neoliberal ideology of Thatcher’s Conservative Government in the 1970s catalysed a series of structural and financial changes within the charity sector in the UK, which lead to a greater onus on charities to manage their brands, and employ profit-oriented brand strategies that had previously only been the domain of the private sector. This has resulted in a blur within public perception of what a charity’s motivations truly are. Is its primary purpose to deliver services to beneficiaries, raise the profile of the campaign, or raise money?

In addition, Government and independent regulatory body reports highlight criticisms of charities, as well as controversies covered in the media, have led to the charity sector witnessing a decreased level of public trust and confidence. It is therefore no surprise that the Charities Aid Foundation has reported significant annual decreases in the sector’s biggest revenue stream, direct individual giving.

Trust is a vital component of a charitable organisation’s brand. However, following the 2007/8 financial crisis, which incited a 21st century renaissance for ‘civil society’, charities are more dependent than ever on attaining funds, and at any cost. As such, the controversial, strategic recruitment of volunteer fundraisers is now an institutionalised phenomenon within the sector. This has resulted in the proliferation of critique within academic and business literature. The discourse covers charities’ appropriation of individual fundraisers and online fundraising platforms as a way of maximizing resource efficiency, as a tool to strategically strengthen bonds with a charity brand, and as a vehicle to penetrate new potential-donors audiences.

Motivations to donate to peers can be examined via the ideology of transactional gifting where there is no expected reciprocation, and relational gifting, whereby the motivations are oriented around asserting status over the recipient, and enforcing an expected reciprocity. The social capital of trust and altruism between actors within a network or community has also received academic attention in relation to the motivation for an individual’s philanthropic action.

The examination of the relationship between giving, trust, and social capital forms a strong body of academic debate, as does the emerging discourse on charities uptake of online fundraising and utilisation of volunteer fundraisers. However, there is a clear gap when it comes to the impact of trust between donors and volunteer fundraising citizens (VFC) who are utilising online platforms to raise money and awareness for a charity, effectively as a prosumer. This area of research would be especially pertinent now because while there has been a 15% reduction in individuals donating directly to charity, we see a 175% growth in individuals undertaking a voluntary activity and soliciting donations from their peers via social media.

In researching this topic, I have examined the role that trust plays in the giving behaviour of individuals who donate to proactive VFCs within their peer-to-peer online social network, examining the implications that this may have for charities. My hypothesis is that if donors are engaging indirectly with a charity brand via their intrinsic trust-based relationship with the VFC, then the recipient charity could harness this relationship as a vehicle to increase their brand awareness and brand community. They could also use this relationship to extend communication on how the beneficiaries are positively receiving the funds, resulting in improved perceptions of the charity sector.

Stay tuned for #2 in the series – The Psychology of Giving: Why do People Give?

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