What Now for the Aid Agencies?

Who would want to be an international development charity just now? Giving from individuals in the UK (and Ireland) to international development causes has been declining for years. By some estimates, the proportion of UK individuals donating to international charities has halved in the last two decades. Total voluntary income of the top 20 UK international development charities fell by 5% between 2016 and 2018. A significant section of the UK’s unlovely mass media close to the current government have a definite bias against perceived “lefty” aid agencies and can be expected to jump on any scandals, real or perceived. So a scandal with one country office of one agency as with Oxfam in 2018 is escalated into front page news.

The international sector at the same time has lost confidence in some of its messaging and appeals. It is no longer acceptable for agencies to use some of the images and propositions that have reliably worked for fundraising for many years. It is right that there should be more focus on considering the dignity and rights of people who receive support from international charities. It does, however, make raising funds harder.

And now the sector is grappling with the implications of the massive cuts to UK Aid. We don’t know all of the cuts yet. But already organisations of all sizes are reporting that major programmes have been axed with very little notice. One medium sized organisation has been told it is losing £40m of funding over three years. Save the Children estimates that funding for child nutrition programmes has been cut by 80%. The International Rescue Committee is losing 75% of its funding for Syria. Funding for small UK based international charities has been abolished completely.

Oh and there’s been a global pandemic. These are tough times indeed.

AAW’s partners spend most of our collective careers with charities focused on international causes. We continue to work with many international organisations from the very largest to the small and niche, in many countries around the world. It’s hard to see the sector struggle in this way.  Particularly when the work the international development and humanitarian sectors delivers has never been more relevant or needed.

We can offer at least some words of hope.

While the cuts in UK Aid are affecting very many of our clients, they are by no means equally vulnerable. Those who have invested, long-term in developing a diverse funding base including significant income from individual giving, will weather this storm. 2020 saw many international charities have a very successful fundraising year – those who have made themselves relevant in the crisis and been brave in seeking support for their crisis response have done often very well.

The disruption that is taking place in fundraising with the growth of digital and a focus on engaging and motivating supporters through integrated cross-channel marketing offers real opportunities for organisations.

Whilst older ways of talking about beneficiaries and displaying need are no longer accepted, it is still possible to create powerful, emotive and authentic messages that engage and motivate support. Need can and should still be shown. It needs to be done in ways that are and look true to the lived experience of the people who need help.

Whilst the numbers of people giving to international causes have, probably, fallen in recent years, the amount given hasn’t significantly. There is a strong constituency in the UK and Ireland of individuals who care about these issues and who will support if asked I the right way. They are affluent. They will give now and continue to give. They will give after death through legacies.

Organisations who focus on these supporters and understand their motivations and needs will succeed. This involves properly researching them and discarding preconceptions and prejudices. For example, a critical part of the international donor constituency are individuals of faith (of all religions). They aren’t necessarily particularly, or at all left wing. And the vast majority of giving by value comes from older donors.

At AAW we have been working on new ways to research donors that look at their behaviours rather than their demographics, what they care about rather than where the live or what they buy. We are working with clients to find different and better ways to engage donors using that insight, using multiple channels in an integrated way. We are trying new approaches such as video calling and programmes based around identifying and motivating core donors. We are looking to find new ways to build long term legacy value. We are bringing in expertise in engaging Faith communities such as Islamic donors. And we are learning lots along the way.

These are tough times for international charities and everyone who cares about them. The situation is one of flux and there are many challenges. But change always creates opportunity and those organisations with the courage and imagination to seize them will emerge stronger from the crisis.

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