Fundraising culture in UK vs US
Reflecting on fundraising culture in the US and the UK, Craigmyle Fundraising Consultant Christine Buccella considers differences, similarities and the fundamentals of success.
Having recently hit the impossible milestone of 30 years (!) as a professional fundraiser, I have been been reflecting on how things have – and haven’t – changed in the sector in the past three decades.
As an American who started my career in the US and then moved to the UK, it’s been interesting to watch how the two markets have approached raising funds over the years, and to observe whether the ‘culture of giving’ has grown closer as fundraising has developed as a necessity for many organisations, particularly in the UK.
Because of a shared language and a historically close relationship, the similarities between British and American culture are often assumed to be greater than the reality. This ‘culture clash’ is often noticeable in the fundraising sector. Both the US and UK populations are generous when it comes to giving to charitable causes. In the UK, 79% of people gave to charity in 2018, compared to 63% of the population in the US. However, there is a significant difference in the size of the donations: with the average person giving $694 a year to charity in the US compared to $247 (£148) in the UK. Whilst it is true that Americans give more to charity than the British, key differences in the tax system and the provision of the state have created two different environments for giving and from this has grown two very different outlooks on philanthropy. The US does not have an organised welfare state equivalent to the UK and has a historic commitment to the idea of limited government, creating a fertile space for philanthropically funded programs that the UK does not have. Because taxes are lower in the USA and the state plays a smaller role in social welfare provision than it does in the UK, many Americans feel it is their duty to step in and donate. It also means that much of this money is directed to local communities or in-country projects, rather than overseas, reflecting a much more parochial view of giving amongst Americans. In 2014, just 4% of charitable giving in the USA went to international organisations whilst in the UK it was 20%.
In the US, giving is more incentivised in the tax system than is the case in the UK. US individuals who make donations qualify for a tax break when they file taxes. This incentive is increased further for those in a higher income bracket which encourages them to make larger donations. For wealthy individuals charitable giving plays a key part in their financial planning. The closest parallel in the UK is gift aid which effectively adds an extra 25 per cent to donors’ gifts. But, while this gives donors an ‘added bonus,’ with the exception of higher rate taxpayers, it does not offer people a personal gain in the way the US system does and therefore it is not often one of the motivating factors for giving.
There is also a difference in the level of ‘professionalisation’ of fundraising in the two countries. For a significant number of people in the UK, giving to charity means organising community events, like bake sales, or dropping some change into a collection box. For these low-level donors, fundraising campaigns that are perceived as too ‘glossy’ can cause ill-will for the organisation. George Bernard Shaw made the observation that “the English are a nation of amateurs, not professionals”, which is still, a hundred years later, a point of pride for people in the UK. For this reason, a perceived slickly produced and executed US-style fundraising campaigns will not necessarily resonate positively with a UK audience.
However, there are plenty of successful fundraising campaigns which have been run in the UK. It is in the fundraising fundamentals that the US and UK are most similar. Both markets create campaigns around the four fundamentals: a strong case for support, an identified and costed need, a well-researched constituency of potential supports and a group of motivated volunteer leaders.
In Craigmyle’s experience, combining professional expertise and fundraising fundamentals with a clear understanding of the organisation’s culture and comfort level with fundraising can be a winning combination. The campaign target and timeframe may differ for the different markets but, like the fable of the tortoise and the hare, sometimes a slower, more thoughtful approach can ultimately prove to be more beneficial for some organisations. But sometimes a little American ‘umph’ doesn’t hurt!
 Barnes, Simon, ‘The USA and UK Charity Sectors Compared’, Alliance Magazine, December 2015
 ‘Give me a break: Why the UK should not aspire to a US-style culture of giving’, Charities Aid Foundation, February 2014
 Barnes, December 2015
 Give me a Break, February 2014
 Barnes, December 2015