The evidence suggests that support for UK development NGOs is actually growing

August 7, 2018 5 By Duncan Green

According to Dan Brockington and Nicola Banks, the evidence suggests that the demise of UK aid is greatly exaggerated. They want to know if they’ve missed something…

International development NGOs are facing interesting times in the UK. We live in a rising tide of nationalism, parochialism and suspicion of, not care for, distant strangers. Austerity measures make charities, and the giving public, poorer. And this was all before the safeguarding scandal put the entire sector on the back foot. The public mood appears more hostile to international development than ever.

At the risk of being heretical, we want to suggest that these threats may be exaggerated. Support for development NGOs is not merely resilient; it is growing. Entrepreneurial NGOs are creating new constituencies that champion new development causes. Far from being a sector under threat, we see a rich diversity of development NGOs flourishing in the UK, sustained by influential minorities.

These are the inescapable conclusions of our study of the changing fortunes of 898 development NGOs in England, Wales and Scotland as part of a collaborative project by the Universities of Sheffield and Manchester, with considerable consultation across the sector. Here are four key findings from the main report, which we should bear in mind as we think through current challenges

1. There are more and more development NGOs. Numbers have been increasing, not decreasing over time. This is despite mergers and declines of a prominent few. There seems to be a sustained appetite for new organisations. Moreover newer organisations can grow quite quickly – age is no guarantee of size.

2. They are spending more and more money. Expenditure by these organisations has increased from just over £3.5 billion to over £5 billion per year by 2015, with scarcely a blip

Note: excludes STC International and the British Council for reasons we explain in the full report

3. The sector expands through entrepreneurship not cannibalism. Development NGOs are expanding in size and financial health by finding new sources of funds, not by stealing supporters from their colleagues. The increases in the number and budgets of the larger organisations cannot be explained by declines in other organisations. 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.

4. This growth has been possible primarily through the generosity of the British public, which is by far the largest source of funds for the sector. It has given just under £10 billion from 2009-2014. It is currently the most important single source of funding, accounting for over 40% of income. The dominance of public giving is plain for all sizes of organisation. And, if that’s not enough, income from the public is increasing even as public disposable income falls as this article shows.

Source of income for NGOs of different size classes

The vigour of the sector puts a different gloss on current travails. It does not make the opposition any less painful or politically dangerous. We are particularly keenly aware of the challenges to the 0.7% commitment. But it does change the challenge facing development NGOs – for it means that the hostility of other elements of the British public is less financially threatening than is often assumed.

We know that overall, UK charities are not sustained by the general public as a whole. Rather, as John Mohan’s work has shown, the sector is primarily supported by a ‘civic core’ of about 31% of the nation which is responsible for 79% of giving and 87% of volunteering. Development NGOs appear to be a special instance of this bespoke supporter action. They may even have their own civic core, for while the rest of the charitable sector has been struggling in recent years, development organisations have been enjoying healthy growth. They are, relatively, austerity proof.

There is something rather remarkable about the development NGO sector as we have described it here. Even in the aftermath of the safeguarding scandal there is evidence to suggest that support for development NGOs has remained resilient. In an era of Brexit, growing insularism, anxiety about refugees and pressure on the Aid budget, the number of charities which work on famine relief and overseas poverty increases at double the rate of other charities. Perhaps this is not a sector which should be understood in terms of what average Britons think or believe, or even dominant political discourses. Perhaps this is the outpouring of a rather stronger vein of cosmopolitanism and concern for distant strangers that runs deep in such a significant minority of people that the creativity and resources of that minority are yet to be exhausted. Perhaps the sector, by virtue of its growth and vigour, creates the very markets and audiences that it seeks funding and support from.

These findings may surprise many colleagues are facing difficult fund-raising environments and hostile media. One of the reasons we have published this blog is that we want to ask ‘do they resonate with your experience’? We would love to hear your views as we pursue our next steps. On our part one challenge is that we cannot tell who this giving public is from current data, or how supporter constituencies are formed, and what conducive environments produce them. We want to understand who constitutes the giving public for development NGOs.

Development NGOs still face some of their most challenging times. There is good evidence that the consequences of episodes of hostility and opposition are felt many years in the future, not in the immediate aftermath. And a far more robust response to the safeguarding crisis is essential. But our point is not that these challenges do not exist, or are somehow irrelevant. Rather our research suggests that the sector can face them with a strong tail-wind of core believers who back them still.