Decoding the relationship between optimism, charitable giving and covid

Updated: Nov 11, 2021

This article was first published in the Chartered Institute of Fundraising' guide 'Fundraising and giving during Covid'. You can read the full guide, including contributions from 12 fundraising specialists, here.


Firstly, what actually is optimism? There are many definitions, but at its heart, someone who is optimistic has hope and confidence about the future.


And optimism isn’t just a way of thinking.


Studies show that optimism can significantly boost the immune system, and that it can positively improve some areas of life, such as your wellbeing.


Since 19 March 2020, we’ve been conducting detailed research into how people are feeling, how this has been changing due to COVID and what the impact is on charitable giving.


One of the specific areas we’ve been investigating is the role that optimism might play in charitable support, how COVID has changed this and what we can learn going forwards

Given optimism’s role in wellbeing, it’s reassuring to see that on average, charity supporters are significantly more optimistic than those who do not support charities.


At the end of July 2021, net optimism for regular charity donors was +46% and stood at +51% for those volunteering for charities.


Given optimism’s role in wellbeing, it’s reassuring to see that on average, charity supporters are significantly more optimistic than those who do not support charities.


At the end of July 2021, net optimism for regular charity donors was +46.2% and stood at +51.4% for those volunteering for charities.


It is not possible to determine whether optimism causes donations, donating causes optimism, or whether they are both indicators of something else. However, we can say that people who support charities are substantially more optimistic than those who do not and that those people who are charity supporters, and due to their more optimistic outlook, are more likely to have improved levels of wellbeing.


Maybe the simple fact of being connected to a charity, making a positive difference to the world, feeling like ‘you’re doing your bit’ all help to make people feel a little bit better, a bit happier, a bit more optimistic.


Since March 2020, the COVID pandemic has of course had a substantial impact on how people have been feeling and on their behaviours.


Through our tracking work, we’ve seen overall public sentiment shift dramatically through the evolution of the pandemic. And we’ve seen charitable support (both intention and behaviour) mirroring some of these shifts.


We all know it’s been a turbulent year, but it is possible to draw out specific aspects of sentiment and investigate their relationship with charity support.


As part of this, we’ve been looking at how net optimism has changed from pre-pandemic levels, through 2020 and into 2021.

At the beginning of the first national lockdown in March 2020, net-optimism reached a low point of just +5%, which was on a scale never seen before.


It is not possible to determine whether optimism causes donations, donating causes optimism, or whether they are both indicators of something else. However, we can say that people who support charities are substantially more optimistic than those who do not and that those people who are charity supporters, and due to their more optimistic outlook, are more likely to have improved levels of wellbeing.


Maybe the simple fact of being connected to a charity, making a positive difference to the world, feeling like ‘you’re doing your bit’ all help to make people feel a little bit better, a bit happier, a bit more optimistic.


Since March 2020, the COVID pandemic has of course had a substantial impact on how people have been feeling and on their behaviours.


Through the tracking work, we’ve seen overall public sentiment shift dramatically through the evolution of the pandemic. And we’ve seen charitable support (both intention and behaviour) mirroring some of these shifts.


We all know it’s been a turbulent year, but it is possible to draw out specific aspects of sentiment and investigate their relationship with charity support.


As part of this, we’ve been looking at how net optimism has changed from pre-pandemic levels, through 2020 and into 2021.


Before the pandemic, average net-optimism in the UK was steady for around five years, at around +43%.


At the beginning of the first national lockdown in March 2020, net-optimism reached a low point of just +5%, which was on a scale never seen before.


This climbed slowly and steadily for much of 2020. Then in 2021, following a dip at the start of the year (coinciding with the third lockdown), net-optimism reached a high of around +40.0% towards the end of April, before settling down to a new average of +37%.


This is just one example of how public sentiment has ebbed and flowed over the course of the past 18 months.


At the start of this article, we highlighted that someone who is optimistic has hope and confidence about the future.


From March 2020 up until July 2021, the UK was a nation with a depressed sense of hope and confidence about the future. A nation generally less happy, more negative and less able to see a positive future.


We call this phenomenon ‘The Hope Gap’ and it’s important, not only for the nation’s health and wellbeing, but for charitable giving. You can see that since May 2021, ‘The Hope Gap’ had started growing again.


Through the first five months of 2021, we saw that as the UK’s average net-optimism steadily increased, so did the number of people who claimed to have donated to charity.


It would appear that not only does optimism have a significant influence on people’s health and wellbeing, but as it changes, so does people’s behaviour towards supporting charities.


Optimism and charitable giving grow together


Throughout the pandemic, while The Hope Gap was at its largest, those charities that showed leadership and provided hope were successful in inspiring and motivating action in the form of support.

There will be times when The Hope Gap shrinks and even disappears. And there will be times when The Hope Gap returns, possibly bigger than before.

And HOPE is something that charities can offer, better than any other type of organisation.



Photo by Ronak Valobobhai on Unsplash