United Donations; how can we win donors over to international development?

In December last year, several Conservative MPs tried to stop the 0.7% target for the UK’s foreign aid spending becoming law – a goal the United Nations identified more than 30 years ago. David Cameron’s own support helped MPs to move beyond the debates and the Bill has now been passed.

In December last year, several Conservative MPs tried to stop the 0.7% target for the UK’s foreign aid spending becoming law – a goal the United Nations identified more than 30 years ago. David Cameron’s own support helped MPs to move beyond the debates and the Bill has now been passed. As members of the Prime Minister’s own party retreated in defeat, advocates see this moment as a triumphant finale to the first year that the UK reached the 0.7% target in its overseas spending.

Despite the widespread press coverage of these debates, the public are woefully misinformed about the UK’s involvement in aid and development overseas. Our research recently revealed that from a survey of 1,000 members of the UK public, only six correctly estimated the UK government’s current spending on overseas aid and development. On average, individuals guessed that the UK spends almost 9% of total income on this area, far greater than the actual amount.

What’s more worrying is that 19% of the British public don’t think the government should spend any of its income on overseas aid and development. The fact that the public are both misinformed and sometimes hostile to international development is a serious stumbling block for charities working in these areas. So why is there so much negativity towards overseas aid? And what can charities do about it?

Our results may seem surprising given the high profile of international events over the last year, such as the continuing war in Syria and the Ebola crisis. However, the prevalence of internal developments, particularly the upcoming election, has meant that among politicians and the public, domestic issues are taking priority. We are also working in a time when the impact of the recession and public cuts is strengthening the idea that ‘charity begins at home.’

We know that the challenges facing international development charities often mirror those faced by the wider charity sector. Increased competition between charities, changing public priorities and calls for more transparency regarding charity spending are affecting the work of all charities.

For those working overseas, the very nature of their work presents a greater challenge. We have found that the most significant barriers preventing people from donating to these charities are worries about corruption in the countries supported, concerns that the money would be misused or spent on terrorism, and a feeling that governments overseas are responsible for their own people.

These findings will not be a surprise to many working in international development as they are certainly not new issues. However, our analysis also shows that these barriers vary between groups of people, meaning that international aid charities have an opportunity to lessen their impact.

Here are two suggestions for how they can start to address some of these stumbling blocks: 

1. Keep talking about corruption

For those working in international development, the constant conversations around corruption in developing countries may be frustrating. However, this is still a major concern for the UK public, with 41% listing this as a barrier to supporting international development. These aren’t issues that charities can overlook and the public’s concerns need to be addressed directly. When asked what would motivate them to support international aid and development charities, 29% of the public said that being reassured about exactly where their money was going would help and 31% wanted to believe that their donation would make a real difference. Given that the attitude ‘charity begins at home’ is strong, it is vital that charities steer the conversation and address these fears.

2. Know your audience

Crucially, our research has found that the barriers and motivations surrounding the support of overseas aid vary depending on whether an individual has ever supported an international development charity in the past. The attitude that charity should begin at home was strong among those who had never donated to one before, whereas those who had were much more concerned about corruption or feeling that no progress was being made.

Although people who have previously donated are obviously more positive in general, they were very likely to feel that a specific appeal (such as a crisis or emergency appeal) would be a strong motivator for them. This makes keeping track of previous donors, particularly those who donated to a specific appeal, absolutely crucial.

Those who had never donated before wanted to know that their money was making a difference and exactly where it was being spent. All participants wanted to know that progress has already been made, showing how important it is that charities use both good and bad stories to attract donors. 

Reassuringly, only a fifth of the public felt that nothing would motivate them to support an international development charity, so there is still a chance that almost 80% of the public can be reached. With the right messaging and targeted appeals, there is still great scope for increasing support.

Kate Cranston-Turner
 

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