Philanthropy and Historical Research

The Long History of Philanthropic Impact Reporting

Contrary to the impression given in many philanthropy blogs and in the pronouncements of contemporary movements such as “effective altruism,” providing evidence of philanthropic impact is not a new development. It has been at the center of the voluntary sector since its rise in the early nineteenth century.

Evidence of the impact of the “philanthropic pound” was an essential part of charitable reporting to donors from the origin of the voluntary organization. The nineteenth century experienced a dramatic change in the way that charity was organized; in particular, it saw the decline of the traditional endowed charity set up by an individual in their will. The creation of an endowed charity allowed the individual philanthropist to have complete say over how his or her money was spent through the strict terms of the trust; this form of charity, however, required the philanthropist to have direct knowledge of both the geographical area and the problem that he or she wanted to alleviate. But by the nineteenth century it was difficult for the individual to have such direct knowledge of the diverse social problems being experienced in the rapidly expanding urban centers. This led to the development of a new form of collectivist charity: the voluntary organization. The crucial difference in this new form of charity was that it was entirely reliant upon the general public for its funding. The number of voluntary organizations rose spectacularly in the nineteenth century and this busy market had to compete for the public’s attention and money. It was therefore essential that they reported back to the public on how their funds were spent.

Very early forms of the charitable annual report can be seen in the printed reports of the eighteenth-century foreign missionary societies (such as the Society of the Propagation of the Gospel, established in 1701). The overall structure of the annual report (produced in conjunction with the annual general public meeting) was pretty much crystallised in form by the start of the nineteenth century. The annual report acted, in a business sense, as a marketing tool for the voluntary organization by publicizing all the good works that the organization had achieved in the past year and by emphasizing how these were dependent upon a regular flow of income. A typical annual report contained the following: a list of trustees; a list of objects of the fund; rules of the fund; a full list of subscribers; a list of bequests; a report of the good work of the fund for the previous year; summary of grants made; and a summary of the audited annual accounts. These annual reports were produced for the societies’ annual meetings, which were part of the season’s calendar of ‘May Meetings’ in London. In the case of the larger charitable societies, the annual meeting was regularly reported in national newspapers such as The Times. The publication of the annual report, in conjunction with the public annual meeting, was therefore both a way of reporting on progress and expenditure in the previous year and a way of soliciting money for the future.

Often, the annual report was supplemented with the production of a monthly or quarterly magazine that gave the charitable society the opportunity to engage with their supporters in a more anecdotal and personal way. A good early example of this dual reporting method can be seen in the published material of the London City Mission. This evangelical interdenominational home-missionary organization was established in 1835 to provide missionaries to evangelize the people of London; it published both an annual report and quarterly magazine from 1836.

The London City Missionaries often reported their endeavours in that very Victorian manner of impressive statistics, while also employing more emotive language. By way of example, in 1854, one of the missionaries responsible for evangelizing foreign sailors passing through the port of London reported: ‘An average of 4 or 5 vessels enter the St Katherine’s Docks daily, containing about 40 seamen. So many of these are foreign, that all my brother missionaries who are appointed to visit foreigners find much work here. And of the tracts which have been given by me during the year, a large proportion were in European languages. While I look on Spaniards, Portuguese, Italians, and others attentively reading those tracts, and when I remember that they will probably be taken to lands where Papal darkness abounds, I ask myself. Who can tell the good which may be effected?’ The missionary then went on to report his efforts in the previous year: he had visited 10,531 individuals; held 64 meetings; and distributed 17,804 religious tracts and books in many different languages. By the 1870s many charitable magazines were also including photographs to support the overall look and feel of the articles, including ‘before’ and ‘after’ photographs of orphaned children to exhibit the impact of the philanthropic contributions.

This mixture of persuasive storytelling combined with detailed factual accounting, the combination of anecdote and financial information, has been a feature of charitable reporting since the early nineteenth century. Our modern metrics are undeniably more sophisticated, but the basic techniques employed in charitable impact reporting have been around for over 200 years.

-Sarah Flew

Sarah Flew is a Foundation Partnerships Manager at the London School of Economics and Political Science. She is the author of Philanthropy and the Funding of the Church of England (2014, Pickering and Chatto).

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