By Tina

It is rather common and understandable that people, businesses and governments see a success story elsewhere and want to replicate it closer to home. Perhaps this explains the recent public discourse according to which the UK should be aiming to reach the levels of individual charitable giving in the US.

There are subtle signs of this in the Giving White Paper, which references the US three times, as well as more overt discussions in countless reports and articles arguing both for and against using the US as the benchmark for future levels of giving in the UK. In theory, there would be nothing wrong with that – if anything, it’s good to be aspirational and to set high targets, especially when they underline a ‘worthy’ cause (namely increasing levels of charitable giving). In practice, however, any superficial exercise of comparing the levels of giving in the UK and theUS is unhelpful at best and demoralising at worst.

First the figures:

Just over half (56%) of the adult population were philanthropically active in the UK in 2010 (CAF/NCVO), as opposed to more than 80% in the US in 2002 (The Future of Philanthropy). Though even here we don’t have directly comparable figures, we clearly see a big difference relating to the penetration rates of philanthropy.

Furthermore, with some quick comparisons between the different sources, we find that per capita giving to culture in the UK stands at around £9, in contrast to approximately £22 in the US.* This is more than twice as much giving to the arts per person in the US than in the UK.

Next the caveats:

As this is in-line with the gap between US and UK giving overall, it exemplifies that the lower levels of giving in the UK are not specific to the arts, but rather a result of an overarching issue most likely related to the culture, ability or incentives for giving (or lack of). And then there are further questions relating to the culture (and necessity) of asking in both countries.

Finally, the questions:

Such questions are likely to shed more light into why the differences in levels of giving are so stark and why it is so difficult to compare:

How many cultural organisations are there in the UK and the US?

  • How much is received on average per organisation?
  • How many fundraisers on average do they employ?
  • How much is invested in fundraising (directly and indirectly)?
  • What percentage of US cultural organisations receive public funding?
  • What proportion of their overall income does public funding account for?
  • What proportion of the population engages with culture as audiences?
  • What proportion of the population gives to cultural causes?

Only when we start answering these questions (and more) will we be in a position to begin to understand why this massive gap of giving between the two countries exists and more importantly, how it can be bridged.

The latest figures on cultural giving in the US are now available here – please note this includes individual giving as well as funding from businesses and trusts and foundations.

*Calculations are based on the following figures/sources:

  • UK adult population: 39m (Office for National Statistics)
  • US adult population: 248m (US Census Bureau)
  • UK individual giving to culture: £363m (Arts & Business)
  • US individual giving to culture: £5.6b (Calculations on Giving USA Foundation)