Dóchas Breakfast Briefing: Insights into Public Trust for INGOs

04 july 2017

Our intern, Katie Hennessy, has written a blog on our recent breakfast briefing on Public Attitudes to Overseas Aid. Check it out below.

The Dóchas Breakfast Briefing on Public Attitudes to Aid and NGOS was held in the Gresham Hotel, the morning of Wednesday 28th June. It was attended by Dóchas members with an interest in communications and fundraising, and represented a number of organisations, large and small.  

The event was introduced by Dóchas CEO, Suzanne Keatinge, and the guest speakers for the morning were from two organisations working in NGO research and business development – UK based nfpSynergy and the Irish company, 2into3. Suzanne shed some light on the level of knowledge amongst the public about Irish government ODA spending, quoting the results of the latest MRBI poll carried out by Dóchas. This revealed:

  • disparity between public perception and the reality of Irish government ODA spending - with most believing we spend much more on aid than the 0.3% we spent in 2016.

  • just 45% thought that international aid organisations were using the money well

This was a useful springboard from which to launch the rest of the morning’s conversation about what this means for engaging the public with the sector. From then, the burning question in the room was around how trust for the sector can be improved, and what we at Dóchas can do to support the sector in improving.

Trust in the Sector

What some might have suspected was found to be true - the bad press of the last few years has damaged the image of organisations working in overseas development. The top public concerns about the charity sector are:

1.       the impact of recent charity scandals on well-run charities

2.       how donations were being spent

3.       the cost of organisation administration

4.       staff salaries

Concerning public image, there was some useful advice offered and lessons learned from an unlikely source: the banking sector. When considering how the previously extremely poor reputation of the banking sector has improved, there might be food-for-thought for aid organisations here:

  • take control of your own image and messaging

  • try to stay out of the news where possible

This will ultimately serve the purpose of strengthening levels of trust and engagement through direct avenues of communication with the public. By staying out of the news, banks had the chance to design their image anew – based on trust, commitment and longevity.

Public trust in banks was at an all-time low in 2011 at 14% and has now improved to 43%. Trust in the charity sector is currently at 43%. What works then, is not trying to counter an image already held by the public, even if it hasn’t been earned, as defensive language can be off-putting.

Messaging and communications should focus on building up public trust through positive messaging. Lessons in positive messaging can be learned from the domestic charity sector, as research has shown that the public is more responsive to recent campaigns at home.

Complimentary advice is that trust needs to be measured and analysed as an isolated indicator, and cannot be inferred from other interactions by charities with the public. For example, when interviewing non-donors, just 43% said they trusted the charity sector. There wasn’t much difference in the trust levels of those actually donating, which came in at 43% also.


With regards to donations, it was found that while trends show an increase in donations in general, it is domestic charities that are benefitting, while overseas charities are losing out. Domestic and overseas charities roughly followed the same dips and increases in fundraising until 2011. After that, donations to aid organisations experienced a significant decrease, while the domestic sector has increased – resulting in a greater disparity between the two than has been seen in years.

It is not only donations that are being lost, but also the value of the money received. In terms of return on investment in funding, our sector invests the same as other charities, and gains significantly less in return, showing that something needs to change in the sector’s strategies and methods.

Focus groups carried out by nfpSynergy shed some light on why overseas aid might be suffering. The results showed that it was difficult for people to see and understand exactly where the money is going or what impact it is having. This, combined with the public’s increased focus on domestic issues, means that overseas aid is having an increasingly more difficult time to remain in public consciousness.

Between 2016 and 2015, there was a decrease in funds raised for most fundraising methods, with an increase in direct marketing campaigns and legacies. These also offered the best return on investment when emergency appeals are counted amongst direct marketing efforts. While the donations to overseas charities in general are going down, the ways in which people donate are also becoming more fractured. This means organisations cannot rely on old methods, such as direct debits, to the extent they currently are, but it also means there is an opportunity to explore new and innovative fundraising methods. 

Communicating Impact

Therefore, the impact of an organisation is a crucial message that needs to be communicated, and better communicated so as to resonate with the public’s own lives. Again, while it might sound obvious, research shows that those who report seeing positive impact from organisations are more likely to be hopeful that there will be positive change in the future. These people then, are your donors.

The sector needs to be aware of the public’s changing expectations of interaction with the media and with organisations. People are demanding instant gratification and results for money spent. While this is not always possible in complex situations, it speaks to the idea that messages should be simplified to resonate with audiences. The trouble there is not to over simplify so that they become simplistic.

Charities should be unafraid to communicate the message that they should be striving ultimately to cease existing. They are here for a cause and when there work is done, it’s done. This is a useful concept when paired with sufficient messaging around the dedication and commitment needed to get there.


Discussion and input from the attendees led to some interesting insights from those working in fundraising and public engagement:

  • The sector needs to work harder to separate themselves from scandals that are not happening in overseas organisations in particular.

  • There is a need to be a separate the public’s trust in general from public reaction to scandals as they happen – public trust is more complex.

  • We need to help the public understand and better vocalise why they don’t trust certain charities or the sector as a whole.

  • Focus on marrying the personal experience of the Irish public with overseas development and humanitarian issues - personal experience is a key factor in influencing engagement and donations.

Following the discussion, there were a number of recommended key steps for Dóchas to take:  

  • Facilitate knowledge sharing on best-practices in communicating impact and relevance of international aid.

  • Conduct more research into trust in the overseas sector in Ireland.

  • Show strength in unity with sector-wide messaging on trust.

Dóchas looks forward to working on these issues with our members.