The shock result of June’s UK general election was undoubtedly the victory in the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea (K&C) of the left-leaning Labour Party, when many had assumed K&C, (London’s wealthiest Borough), would, by nature of its affluence, forever remain a safe Conservative seat.
On closer inspection the shock is not entirely merited, especially given K&C’s “startling” inequality. Simmering grievances in the Borough, at least partly the result of gaping wealth differentials, were exposed just days after the election by the visceral local reaction to a lethal fire at (Council-owned and run) Grenfell Tower in the north of the Borough, and the Council’s abject response to it. Indeed, the yawning gap between rich and poor in K&C is an open secret to locals; as victorious Labour candidate Emma Dent Coad (pictured above, who before winning was a K&C Councillor) said in a powerful acceptance speech, K&C has “areas of extreme poverty…[p]eople [in K&C] are getting poorer, their income is dropping, life expectancy is dropping and their health is getting worse. There is no trickle down in Golborne ward and there is no trickle down anywhere in Kensington”. Dent Coad’s more recent public statements claim Victorian-era diseases like TB and rickets are still present in K&C, and that, so compressed are the Borough’s geographic inequalities of affluence, simply crossing the road can see the average income of residents fall by ten times. While it is an outlier, K&C is not entirely unrepresentative of the modern trend of wide divergences between haves and have-nots.
All of this matters for fundraising – a lot. In the UK and elsewhere, wealth is held in fewer and fewer hands, with distributions of wealth and income increasingly lopsided. Contemporary fundraising technologies, many with their genesis in postwar fundraising efforts, often rely on broad participation across society. A shrunken middle-class restricts this, with fewer citizens able to afford to support good causes, which in turn means fewer funds raised and less participation. And economic changes are colliding with a tougher regulatory regime in which marketing is increasingly challenging, and which may rule out go-to methods of acquisition-based business models. With such strong headwinds, declining participation in the sector might seem inevitable, and with it any hopes of maintaining donation levels, let alone increasing the amount donated.
The cloud may, however, have a silver lining, in this case the fact that our ability to tailor approaches to higher value audiences has never been greater. Databases like the Luxemburg Income Study and the World Top Income Database offer unprecedented scope to analyse the social dynamics of wealth in the UK and across the world to a remarkable degree of granularity. Much of this information was assembled by a cohort of academics, lead by the eminent Professor Sir Tony Atkinson (who sadly died earlier this year), and including Professors Thomas Piketty (of Capital in the 21st Century fame), Emmanual Saez and Gabriel Zucman, (the latter’s recent work having shone much light on the widespread use of tax havens). We know more, in more detail, than we ever have about how to identify those with the means to support our great causes. And at a more practical level, moves towards data-driven methods have been taken, notably by research consultancy Factary, whose approach to database screening has, they say, been “revolutionised” by the use of data on “socio- and geo-demographic factors” to “prioritise the database” according to ability and likelihood to give. Rather than using a bank of more or less static data produced by desk research work to screen against, Factary now use overlaid data, to indicate those most likely to give. While I am not familiar with the precise data used, such methodologies are surely the future for fundraising research, especially considering that those able to donate major gifts (say of £10,000 or more) are likely to be located in fewer than 10,000 of the 1.8m postcodes in the UK. Data (academic or publicly available) is accessible like never before, making analysis of economic geography sensible and achievable, and could, if used properly, give a much-needed lease of life to British high-value fundraising. Such a pivot towards high-value is not without risks, perhaps the greatest being the chance of the interests of a minority being heard more loudly than those of the majority. However, while the Third Sector would surely lose credibility if it were seen to give undue attention to niche interests, no-one thinks UK not-for-profits face SuperPAC-type capture anytime soon. More likely is the familiar issue of certain causes being harder to raise for than others, which is as old as the sector itself, and probably insoluble. More regulation, or a hard interpretation of the DPA or GDPR precluding analysis like that described above, is another risk, but, by retaining manual elements in analytical processes and taking a truly donor-centred approach, one which should be able to be mitigated.
Navigating these risks would, however, have the benefit of diversifying the income base for a sector whose overall revenue remains stubbornly flat. And if you think that increasing the amount donated to not-for-profits in this way seems unrealistic, is it any more so than, say, Labour winning in Kensington & Chelsea?