Recent cuts to the overseas aid budget have underlined a torrid few years for the overseas charity sector. Our research shows that overseas development is increasingly a niche cause in Britain – while 16% of the public said that overseas aid was among their favourite causes in 2010, by 2020 this figure had dropped to just 5%. Gone are the days of Live Aid and Make Poverty History attracting broad popular support and the fundraised income of many of the largest overseas charities has stagnated or declined in the last few years.
To cap it all off, the cuts to overseas aid have been generally popular with the public. In our most recent round of Charity Awareness Monitor research, 53% of respondents said that aid spending should be “slightly” or “significantly” reduced, almost identical to 51% in December 2018. Asking respondents specifically about the recent set of cuts, two thirds (65%) agreed that they were in favour of the cuts, with 57% saying they had been aware of them before taking the survey. Nearly half (47%) agreed that the cuts would have a negative impact on people living in poor countries. In fact, even among those in favour of the cuts, 41% agreed that they would have a negative impact on people’s lives. This is partly explained by the fact that most respondents (62%) agreed that while they support the international aid budget, they believe there is currently a greater need in the UK.
What has gone wrong for overseas charities? One obvious answer would be simply to say that Britain has become more insular in recent years – the impact of Brexit and a more stridently nationalistic Tory party has been to make overseas issues less appealing. But this answer is too simplistic. We have seen the same pattern of declining support for overseas charities over the last decade in Ireland, despite Ireland being one of the most enthusiastic supporters of European integration and internationalism more generally. Indeed, in the Ireland I grew up in it is only a slight exaggeration to say that for many the word charity was synonymous for overseas giving – and it was certainly a more insular place than it is today. A more inward facing Britain may be part of the story, but it can’t explain it all.
So where else can we look to understand what is happening to the overseas sector? One factor that we know is important in the decision to give to any charity is belief that that donation can make a difference. And we also know from our research that belief in the possibility for future change in a social problem is linked almost universally with belief that progress has been made in the recent past. So in other words, if people believe that no progress has been made in the past twenty years, they will not believe that you can make a difference in the next twenty years.
The problem for overseas charities is that the large majority believe, against all evidence to the contrary, that no progress has been made in global poverty in recent years. Time and time again, focus group participants tell us that they have been supporting charities in poor countries for years and have not seen any change. Of course, most of us in the charity sector will know that there has been an enormous drop in global poverty in recent years, but that message is not getting through to the public. And who can blame them when international charities continue to overwhelmingly emphasise the negative and focus on the dire need that still remains? There is no doubt that images of the worst need can drive support in the short term, but long term it numbs people to the idea that meaningful progress is possible on your issues.
By contrast, the cancer sector has done an excellent job at balancing talking about the huge progress that has been made in fighting cancer in recent years with the need to keep working to develop new treatments. Of course, this is made easier when so many people will have a personal connection with the cause and know that cancer is not always the death sentence it was once seen to be, but communications matter too. Years of messaging from organisations like Cancer Research UK have created a powerful story of progress, change and lives saved while emphasising the urgency and possibility of future change.
In recent years, there has also been a shift in emphasis from many international charities. In an understandable attempt to focus on root causes and harness the urgency of climate change as an issue, many have started to push forward more messaging on climate justice. There is certainly good evidence to suggest that the public are increasingly convinced about the urgency of climate as an issue, and it is no longer restricted to the young – over 65s are often the most concerned about this issue in our research. So pivoting to climate change makes a certain amount of sense in theory for international charities (as well of course as being the sincerely held belief of many working in these charities as the right thing to do).
But in practice, there is a major issue with this approach that is often raised by participants in our qualitative research. While it is easy to understand how a donation of £5 can help someone going hungry in a poorer country, it is a much bigger leap to explain how that same £5 can make a difference on a topic as seemingly intractable as climate change. As one participant in a focus group in Dublin recently put it:
“I can’t give fifty quid to a charity [saying] – ‘oh we’re going to fix global warming’. No, it’s only we can do it.”
While charities will of course have well thought-out plans on making an impact on climate justice and preparedness, the fact is that many potential supporters will be put off by mention of climate change – not because they are deniers or sceptics, but simply because the problem seems too big for charities. As charities move from telling simple stories (we need to feed this child) to more complex ones (we need to create structures to ensure that this child does not go hungry), they need to find simple ways to convey their solutions to these problems.
The overseas sector finds itself then in a difficult place. What can be done to recover its relevance and underline the importance of its cause? It is a long road to recovery, but three simple suggestions for the sector and individual charities would be:
- There has been no shortage of campaigning energy in recent years – if nothing else we are not living through an age of apathy. The enthusiasm for movements such as Extinction Rebellion and Black Lives Matter as well as housing activism show there is a desire to create a more just and sustainable world through transformative movements. But charities need to show that they are grassroots organisations involved in this work in a meaningful way – not lofty technocrats but active agents of change.
- As a sector, international charities should stop shying away from their own success. Hundreds of millions of people have been lifted out of poverty in recent years, in part because of the work of your organisation. Yes, the need is still great, and the public understands that – but it also needs to know that development works.
- As individual organisations, charities need to accept that they are operating in a more constrained environment in the immediate future and find their niche. Being a generalist works well when times are good, but as Tesco discovered during the last economic downturn, it’s not so helpful when things go south and you find you are not as high quality as M&S, not as cheap as Lidl, etc. Help your potential supporters out by giving them a reason to support you over any other general overseas charity – whether it is through emphasising what you do (WaterAid) or who you want to support you (Islamic Relief).