How can overseas aid and development charities better understand what drives their support?

What qualities do the public believe the "ideal" charities possess, and how can International Development charities embody these?
Sam Burthem

Due to momentous political events at home and in the West as a whole in the last few years, international development and problems in developing nations have been out of the media spotlight recently. Underneath this surface-level silence, significant changes to how overseas aid and development works (hereafter referred to as overseas aid) are being pushed through. OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) rules did prohibit ODA spending being used “as a vehicle to promote providers’ security interests”[1], but after lobbying by the UK Government among others, these rules were amended to allow some foreign aid contributions to be spent on support for military forces in fragile countries.[2]

This was followed by the news that more than 25% of the foreign aid budget  may be spent by other departments (such as the Department of Defence) by 2019/2020. This had led to concern among many ODA charities, with Saira O’Mallie, interim UK Director of the ONE Campaign commenting: “British taxpayers must be assured that any department spending UK aid will adopt the same high standards of transparency as DfID, with a focus on the poorest countries….Our aid budget cannot be diverted to countries or areas solely for our strategic interests.”[3]

I fear these sorts of interventions by charities will fall on deaf ears in parliament as the public are becoming increasingly disengaged with causes related to overseas aid.

The Bond Aid Tracker has shown that, among other indicators, survey participants saying they have donated to a global poverty causes have dropped from 36% in winter 2013 to 23% in spring 2016. This seems to have corresponded with the increasing discussion of the ring fencing of the 0.7% of Gross National Income spent on overseas aid by the Government. According to nfpSynergy’s International Development Cameo, a significant proportion of the Public believes that Dfid’s budget accounts 12.9% of Government income, which provides a plausible explanation why the public may perceive the alleviation of global poverty to be under the government’s remit rather than their own.[4]

To compound this, Bond’s research has shown that despite continued efforts to increase public understanding of how their money is used in aid projects, 56% of the public as a whole believes that the majority of their money is still being wasted.[5]

This is contrasted by nfpSynergy’s research in perceptions of refugees. This research consistently showed high levels of concern about the implications of the refugee crisis for the EU and the UK, with nearly half of surveyed members of the public stating the UK should take less refugees in 2016[6]. The data gathered by Bond[7] suggests that there has been a decline in members of the public personally engaging in overseas aid causes, combined with a concern about the possible negative outcomes of allowing in those displaced by poverty and war[8]. This points to the conclusion drawn by DFID in 2009, that that global “poverty is becoming less of a priority for the UK public with an increase in the proportion believing other problems are more important and that they have enough problems of their own.”[9]

This should be an alarming phenomenon for overseas development charities, as the movements that have brought significant change, from the campaign to end slavery to Live Aid, have been driven by an upswell of public support lobbying for change.

Overseas Aid charities must therefore be able to mobilise public support more effectively. This requires more sophisticated tools for understanding the values and priorities that underpin the attitudes of the British Public to international aid and development.

nfpSynergy’s Brand Attributes monitor has revealed a disparity between the types of attributes the public choose for their ideal charities, and the attributes of their preferred charities. The top three stated attributes for an ideal charity were “trustworthy, honest, caring and compassionate” and the top ten included reputable and helpful. We then applied a statistical tool known as driver analysis to the data, which revealed the attributes driving people towards certain charitable brands. This analysis displaced attributes like “reputable” and “approachable” from the top ten and replaced them with attributes like “heroic” and “inspiring”. This indicates that while people attach rational importance to attributes like accountability and transparency, people are also driven by positive emotional attachments to ideals such as heroism and inspiration.

Despite the protestations of some parts of the British media, massive strides have been made in making overseas aid funding, especially governmental and intergovernmental aid funding, more accountable and success increasingly measurable. The International Aid Transparency Initiative set up the Aid Transparency Index in 2011, since then the number of donors either in the “good” or “very good” brackets of the index has increased from 0% to over a third.[10] DFID is one of the ten Overseas Agencies to fully meet the 2011 Busan Commitment to Aid Transparency[11]. However, the fact that increasing public disengagement has paralleled this progress towards transparency suggests that increased transparency is not a one-size-fits all solution for increasing public support for individual charities. Charities should uncover what aspects of their brand attract support, so that they can better accentuate these aspects when they communicate their work to the public.  

[1] Anders, M. (2017, June 05). Aid divisions emerge as UK election looms. Retrieved July 04, 2017, from

[2] Mason, R. (2016, February 20). OECD redefines foreign aid to include some military spending. Retrieved July 05, 2017, from

[3] Quinn, B. (2016, September 24). More than a quarter of UK aid budget to fall prey to rival ministries by 2020. Retrieved July 05, 2017, from

[4] International Development CAMEO, Dec 14, nfpSynergy

[5] Van Heerde Hudson, J., & Hudson, D. (2016, October 1). UK Public Attitudes Towards Aid and Development . Retrieved July 5, 2017, from

[6] Charity Awareness Monitor, Jan-Oct 16, nfpSynergy

[7]  Van Heerde Hudson, J., & Hudson, D. (2016, October 1). UK Public Attitudes Towards Aid and Development . Retrieved July 5, 2017, from

[8] Charity Awareness Monitor, Jan-Oct 16, nfpSynergy

[9] Aid Under Pressure: Support for Development Assistance in a Global Economic Downturn . (2009, June 2). Retrieved July 11, 2017, from
Commissioned by the UK Parliament's International Development Committee

[10]  Aid Transparency Index | Executive Summary. (2017). Retrieved July 11, 2017, from

[11] Ibid

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