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Why charities need to better understand populism or risk being disadvantaged


9 March 2021 at 4:34 pm
Luke Michael
New research shows populist values are a strong predictor of charitable giving


Luke Michael | 9 March 2021 at 4:34 pm


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Why charities need to better understand populism or risk being disadvantaged
9 March 2021 at 4:34 pm

New research shows populist values are a strong predictor of charitable giving

The growing importance of populism in Australia will have major implications for the future level and direction of charity donations, new research says. 

A research article examining populism and charity donations by Professor Ian McAllister and Emeritus Professor Toni Makkai from Australian National University found that populist values were strong predictors of charitable giving in Australia. 

Populism – which has become increasingly prominent in recent years through Brexit and the presidency of Donald Trump – is a political approach that appeals to ordinary citizens who feel their concerns are disregarded by the established “elite” in society.

Professor McAllister told Pro Bono News that charities needed to be aware of populism, because it was “quite widespread” within the Australian community.   

“We don’t see it very visibly because there’s no major populist parties like you would find in Europe and we don’t have a Trump or somebody like that,” McAllister said.

“But if you drill down into it, you can see quite extensive views which you would regard as populist.

“And it does have a significant effect on the extent to which people are prepared to donate to charities.”

Researchers said their findings had repercussions for the future levels and direction of charitable giving, as populist values become increasingly important.

“The political distrust that populism feeds off has major implications for charities, with those holding such views bracketing some charities with the political elite, and as a consequence withholding donations from them,” the report said. 

“Since many of the elements that combine to form populism – such as antielitism and the national interest – are in opposition to what many of these [organisations] espouse, this will present a major challenge for the main charities.” 

For their analysis, researchers used a national election survey conducted in Australia in mid 2019, which offered respondents the choice between receiving a personal payment of $10 or making a $10 donation to one of five charities.

Those charities were Bowel Cancer Australia, Brain Foundation, Bush Heritage Australia, Elizabeth Morgan House Aboriginal Women’s Services, and Guide Dogs Victoria.

Analysis of the 1,814 responses found that 79 per cent chose to keep the money for themselves, while 21 per cent chose to give to charity.

The survey also analysed respondents on statements around three elements of populism – anti-elitism (most politicians do not care about the people), social homogeneity (minorities should adapt to the customs and traditions of Australia), and the sovereignty of citizens (the people, and not politicians, should make our most important policy decisions).

McAllister said the results showed that people who hold populist values were less likely to donate to charities than people that don’t hold those values.

He said people holding populist values – especially around social homogeneity – were also more likely to give to certain charities and less likely to give to others.

“You can see in the data set, for example, people with populist values were more likely to give to Guide Dogs Victoria and were less likely to give to a charity for Indigenous [services] or Bush Heritage,” he said. 

“So the goals of those charities affect the extent to which people with populist values would donate.”

Overall, researchers found that social homogeneity was the most likely populist element to affect charitable giving, followed by sovereignty of the people. 

McAllister said charities needed to better understand populism to ensure they weren’t disadvantaged by it.

He said awareness of this should be a consideration for an organisation’s future public appeals.

“Being aware of populism and letting that mould your marketing strategy would probably be important,” he said. 

“I’m not a marketing person, but if you know there’s values some people hold that are not likely to lead to particular donations, you may want to change your message.”


Luke Michael  |  Journalist  |  @luke_michael96

Luke Michael is a journalist at Pro Bono News covering the social sector.

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