We are giving less to charity, around 20% less in 2012 alone, according to a recent UK Giving report. Unsurprisingly, the news sent shockwaves through the voluntary sector, yet not for the expected reason.

The root of the trouble? Well, this £2.3bn drop-off looks on the face of it like a robust finding. It is, after all, based on research conducted by the Office for National Statistics with a sturdy sample of 3,000 adults. Yet it bears little relation to the actual income trajectory of the charitable sector. Indeed, most national charities are seeing a consistent upward trend in public contributions.

Complex relationship

Instead, the dramatic headlines prompted by the report, commissioned by the Charities Aid Foundation, have highlighted a complex relationship between charities and external data providers, feeding a sense of scepticism within the voluntary sector over the role of research findings in decision making.

So what went wrong in the UK Giving report? From a handful of tele-depths I conducted among senior fundraising managers, the consensus appears to be that the UK Giving survey captured only feelings about what happened rather than what actually happened — based upon dodgy recall of charitable giving over the past year. Forget whether it's qual or quant: when charities are distrusting data based on public perceptions, we're all in trouble.

The wake-up call here is not for the charities themselves, but for the market research industry. Often lacking the designated research budgets of our corporate clients, charities see ad hoc surveys as an expensive luxury — and understandably this creates considerable anxiety over the usefulness and meaning of research data. When a £20bn industry sector starts viewing us with such scepticism, it's time to act fast.

Some of the criticisms levelled by fundraising managers at qual research are familiar. There are the old chestnuts about its limited ability to predict behaviour; the tendency for dominant individuals to steer group opinion; and anxiety about basing decisions on tiny sample sizes. Others are of particular concern: knee-jerk reactions to fundraising media, for example, respondents" belligerent (and misleading) claims that they never engage with DM or face-to-face fundraising.

While the long-standing relationship between the research industry and its corporate clients is based on an unspoken mutual understanding of the capabilities and limits of research, it appears that we simply haven't taken the time to cultivate the same kind of trust and sense of reassurance among charity fundraising departments.

There are several challenges here. Many charities — even the largest ones — do not employ insight managers. Often, marketing itself operates as a function of fundraising, service delivery or volunteering, rather than as a standalone function. This means we can't rely on assumptions that briefing documents will be written in the lexicon of a marketeer, or that we can present our findings in marketing-speak. We need to listen as carefully to our charity clients as we do to respondents, and communicate with them in their own language.

Another challenge is the infrastructure that already exists within many charities for feeding back stakeholder opinions. Unlike many corporates, charities often enjoy a lively two-way communication with their audiences through well-established feedback mechanisms — with some even giving donors the opportunity to evaluate fundraising products and communicate via online networks. It's hardly surprising that many charities have come to rely on internally gathered data, as the links with their stakeholders are often far stronger than their relationships with research agencies.

These lower-cost feedback mechanisms are clearly appealing when budgets are being cut — and while the corporate sector tends to spend when it sees clouds on the horizon, charities usually do the opposite.

As an industry we need to challenge perceptions that these internal monitoring and evaluation processes can offer the same level of insight as ad hoc research. The corporate sector would be suspicious of the biases created by a self-selecting sample, and would question the value of top-of-mind opinions gathered without detailed probing into underlying attitudes and beliefs. It's up to us to convince the voluntary sector to think in a similar way.

Value-added checklist

Here, in the eyes of senior fundraising managers, are the points we need to address in order to start adding real value for charities:

  • Be absolutely clear on what qual can and can't achieve: reinforce its value in understanding broader contexts, and don't raise unrealistic expectations around predicting behaviour.

  • Reinforce the skill of the researcher in managing dominant personalities and strong views in groups, and the value of intelligent analysis and interpretation of the data.

  • Offer research consultancy not "fieldwork with benefits": question the brief, present detailed but digestible findings rather than glib recommendations, and clarify throughout what aspects of the data are and are not meaningful.

  • Keep in contact! Charities place huge value upon ongoing relationships — and because they often lack insight or marketing departments to confidently translate insights into action, greater value is placed upon a researcher who offers to get involved with ongoing planning than one who just passes the ball and skips off to their next project.

And finally, we need to publicise ourselves actively. Without a cosy relationship to fall back on, we need to work hard at establishing a dialogue with the voluntary sector to reinforce the value of externally-gathered insights and help steer charities through the new financial pressures they are beginning to face.

With thanks to Lucy Caldicott, Director of Fundraising at CLIC Sargent; Gillian Claugher, Director of Regional Fundraising and Development at The Children's Society; Carolyne Coupel, Head of Direct Marketing at National Autistic Society; and Liz Monks, Director of Fundraising at Alzheimer's Society.