February 15, 2011 7:57 pm

Blow for Big Society as donations stall

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The amount of money people give to charity as a proportion of their spending has remained virtually unchanged for 30 years, research shows, raising more questions about how David Cameron’s Big Society will be funded.

Academics at the University of Bristol and the Cass Business School found that the population’s average weekly donation more than doubled from 98 pence to £2.34 between 1978 and 2008.

However, they said this change had tracked the rise in individual spending power. In 1978 donations were worth about 0.3 per cent of a person’s overall spending, rising slightly to 0.4 per cent by 2008.

Professor Sarah Smith of Bristol University said giving had remained static despite a big expansion of donor tax breaks and the professionalisation of charity fundraising.

“The relative stability of charitable giving is both good and bad news for the sector,” Prof Smith said. “It means charities can rely on donors even in times of recession. But it also indicates the huge scale of the challenge in raising the level of donations.”

Charitable giving is important to the prime minister’s Big Society project because he wants local voluntary groups and social entrepreneurs to provide more services as he cuts back the state.

However, critics say the idea needs to be properly funded. Charity bosses have told him he risks killing the Big Society at birth because of deep cuts to councils’ voluntary sector grants.

Mr Cameron sought to shore up support for the Big Society this week, describing it as his “mission in politics”. He argued that boosting charitable giving and volunteering was “only a part” of the idea, alongside more power for local people and opening up public contracts to voluntary groups and companies.

The Cabinet Office indicated on Tuesday it had listened to concerns about the need to increase a £100m transition fund, introduced to help charities survive the brutal cuts to local authority spending. The department said just under £200m of bids had been received from charities and that it “hoped to meet as many of those requests as possible”.

The government has also launched a Big Society Bank to finance social enterprises and voluntary groups, although it will launch with reserves of up to only £300m.

The Bristol/Cass report showed donations from the richest 10 per cent of households rose from 16 per cent of total giving in 1978 to 22 per cent in 2008.

Mr Cameron’s attempt to keep up the Big Society’s momentum continues on Wednesday when he will announce that 8,000 young people have expressed an interest in his National Citizen Service.

Francis Maude, Cabinet Office minister, will say that the coalition wants all 600,000 16-year-olds in Britain to take part in the service, a key plank of the idea.

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