Stop clutching at straws: support for overseas development charities is low and shrinking


Oxfam published a blog[1]from its head of research, Duncan Green, in August titled ‘The evidence suggests that support for UK development NGOs is actually growing’. Unfortunately, the evidence shows no such thing at all. The evidence that Duncan Green is referring to comes from this paper[2] by two academics who appear to know as much about fundraising and public attitudes to charities as I know about development in rural Tanzania.

The thrust of Duncan Green’s argument, and the original report, is that overseas development charities are doing well because:

  1. The number of overseas development charities is growing
  2. They are spending more and more money
  3. They are growing through ‘entrepreneurship not cannibalism’
  4. They are growing primarily through the generosity of the British public

On almost every count these arguments are based on either outdated evidence or debatable analysis. So first let’s look at the data on which he is basing these arguments and then look at our own data from nfpSynergy.


The flaws in Duncan Green’s argument:

  1. The vast majority of the data in the paper that Duncan Green cites is from 2014 or earlier. Yes, it’s four years old. Pretty much all of it. So how he can pretend that support for development charities ‘is actually growing’ is beyond me. It’s worth pointing out that 2014 was before the Haiti safeguarding scandal, before the Olive Cooke affair, before the CEO scandal of February 2015 revealing that 32 development charities CEOs earned more than £100k each. So to claim that support for development charities is growing based on 4 year old data, is a bit like forecasting who will win a general election today based on 2014 polling.


  1. Another key change since the paper in this data is that the 0.7% of GNI being dedicated to aid was only passed into law in 2015. The evidence is that this is a deeply unpopular measure with the public. So on almost every front the data from the paper that Duncan Green cites is before a range of critical events that have influenced public opinion.


  1. Green and the paper’s authors appear to see great hope in the growth in public fundraising (the paper’s figure 5). The problem is that public fundraising is in fact shrinking as a proportion of total income: from above 40% in 2009 to below 40% in 2014, by around five percentage points in total. That aside, does the paper (in figure 5) show a blossoming in public support during the period 2009-2014?  No. It takes no account of inflation for starters. If it is showing anything it probably shows how maybe 1-5 million members of the public are very generous in their donations to overseas charities. More important the ‘voluntary’ income category in SORP on which figure 5 is based includes government grants. Bonkers but true. See below.


  1. However, Green manages to conclude that ‘this means that these organisations are finding new sources of funding from new supporters, not raiding existing supporter bases. This in turn suggests that fundraising is really important for expansion. NGOs which sustain high expenditure almost all invest in fundraising. Of course, Green is right at one level. Fundraising does sustain high expenditure in order to deliver the income, and is important for growth. Indeed, it is precisely this kind of high expenditure by a range of large charities, overseas charities among them, that created the backlash against fundraising which was triggered by the furore surrounding the death of Olive Cooke.


  1. What the research does show very clearly is that income from governments, include our own British government is growing. This is partly because the UK government overseas aid budgets started growing before the 0.7% aid expenditure became law. So if the data that Green cites shows anything it shows how heavily dependent overseas aid charities are on government aid budgets. If anything is growing in overseas aid charities it is government grants not public donations.


  1. The authors of the paper and Duncan Green appear to have a poor understanding of both the data and the sector they are analysing. I have some sympathy with this as SORP allows a strange set of bedfellows in the category of ‘voluntary’ income. So ‘voluntary’ income is not the same as donations from the public, but the analysis seems to presume it is in some places. ‘Voluntary’ can include government grants.

The authors of the paper struggle with this problem using terms like ‘it is not entirely clear’ ‘one of the peculiarities of the data’ and ‘even more strangely’ and go on to wonder how charities could raise £1.4 billion without spending any money on fundraising. It doesn’t seem to occur to them to query their source data, how charities do their accounting, or reporting them.


  1. The report’s author’s confusion about the data they are looking at is highlighted by a footnote which comments on the ‘extraordinary’ amount of money that the British Council raise from the public. The only problem is the British Council raises negligible amount of money from the public. Their annual report makes clear that their biggest source of ‘voluntary’ income is their grant of £200 million from the Foreign Office. Because this is a grant (not a contract), it is deemed voluntary.


So what do the public think about overseas aid charities

Our latest research from the public shows very clearly how the public has a low level of support for overseas.

  • When the public was asked how much they trusted different charity sectors the overseas aid sector is the sector second from lowest on the list at 36% and down from 40% the previous year. This compares with cancer and rescue services at 76% trust each, more than twice as much.
  • We also asked the public in August 2017 how much of different sectors’ money should and does come from government. Overseas aid charities were the only sector where the amount they thought should come from government (29%) was lower than what they thought does come from government (42%) or a deficit of 13 percentage points. Compare this to the disability sector which the public think should get 54% of its income from government but only gets 33%, or a surplus of 21 percentage points.
  • In January 2010 when we asked people to think about what cause their favourite charities fell into, 16% said overseas aid and development. In September of 2018 the figure is just 7%.

That to me is pretty clear and recent data that the public has a specific distrust for overseas charities, and gives it less support than for other sectors.

The reason why it matters that a senior member of Oxfam staff puts such a positive gloss on such old data in a little-known blog is that I suspect it reflects a broader mind-set. This is the mindset that says that safeguarding scandal was a kind of ideological witch hunt by the right-wing media. It’s the mindset that says that the lack of support for overseas charities is down to the fact that overseas charities need to find a better paradigm or ‘frame’ for showing the public how great overseas development charities really are. It is the public who need to change their perspective, not overseas development charities their behaviour.

Like some ageing actor, overseas charities want to be able to claim ‘my public still love me’ when all the evidence points to the opposite. Until overseas charities really come to terms with how deeply they have fallen out of favour with the UK public, they have no chance of working out how they need to change. And this blog is an example of how a senior and respected member of the overseas development community will clutch at any straws to say things are really ok. The first thing that overseas charities need to do is admit they have a problem, and that they need to change. Duncan Green’s blog shows how far they are from doing that.

Joe Saxton​



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