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How to engage a development-cynical audience: insights from Daily Mail readers

We all know the charity sector is having a tough time, with one of the key issues being decline in trust. Research by the Charity Commission (2016) revealed that media stories about charities are by far the biggest driver of this trust deficit.

International development charities, also targeted for their association with often-vilified foreign aid, are at the eye of a perfect storm of public discontent, which is most explicity manifested in the Daily Mail.

As audience insight specialists, we saw value in reaching out to Daily Mail readers, those who will have been exposed to this anti-international development charity rhetoric more than many others. This is particularly vital as we’re hearing these skeptical views more and more – in our frequent research for charities with a range of target audiences, even the more liberal and engaged.

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These Daily Mail readers aren’t just interesting as a valuable audience themselves, but as a proxy for increasingly common complaints about the charity sector, specifically development, from across the political spectrum. Three particular complaints arise: CEO salary, traceability and effectiveness. However, using the Daily Mail focus groups to dig down into these, it became clear that they are not quite the heart of the matter.

1. “Why are charity CEOs paid so much?”

Delving deeper, what emerged is a real sense of distance from charities, especially big well-known names. Charities are increasingly seen as part of “the establishment” and our Daily Mail reader feels increasingly isolated from them. At a time when shared values and individual connections are becoming ever more important for trust, the world of charity feels ever more remote and elite.

Instead, people want charities positioned “on their side”. And indeed, we know that some charities do seem more willing to take on established power structures and institutions, like Oxfam with their “Even it up” campaign and recent video on tax avoidance. Positioning potential supporters, charity beneficiaries and charities themselves on the same side against global elites has potential to reframe the narrative, driving greater affinity with charities.

2. “Where is my money going?”

The next common issue: traceability. Is my money being used in bribes in corrupt countries? What became clear as we discussed this in our groups is the fact that it is associated with deeper, more fundamental feelings around a loss of control. Development charities are seen as distant from people’s everyday lives – beyond supporters’ influence, very different to the well-loved local hospice, the common counter-example offered. So how do charities start to tackle this?

The key is challenging this feeling of distance. What we see working well is building a more proximate, personal connection to the work on the ground. For example, using frontline staff to talk directly to audiences, to build more of a human connection, in line with the new culture of trust in the individual. Medecins Sans Frontiers do this particularly well, and indeed it reflects evidence from Bond that staff on the ground are perceived as optimally blending warmth and competence.

3. “What difference is my cash making?”

Perhaps most pervasive criticism we hear, and that emerged loud and clear in our Daily Mail groups: effectiveness. This feeling is heightened for an older audience who have seen many years of campaigns to combat famine, drought, and disease. These decades of appeals to urgent need have bred a genuine sense of hopelessness. The world of international development might feel like it’s trying to tell more positive stories of long-term and sustainable impact, but these aren’t getting through – the overwhelming feeling is a sense of gloom that nothing’s changing.

So how can we address this? Firstly, by ensuring that even our Daily Mail target (who are more likely to be responding to emergencies than giving to development charities regularly) get to see visions of long-term impact and improvement over time, rather than just being exposed to urgent need asks that show repetitive desperation and lead to this emotional disconnection. And finding simple, emotive, human stories to drive engagement with systemic issues, to show that things really are changing.

Emotion is the way forward

What became clear to us is that the route forward for charities will not be about fighting the rational with the rational; instead it’s about responding to feelings, namely this sense of emotional disconnection. With an emotional connection to charities, knowing how much the CEO earns or how exactly the money is spent become less important. Many of our respondents told us about much loved (often domestic) charities. For the most part, they had very little idea what these charities do, but instead link them to certain key values that they hold dear.

This reframes the job to be done for charities: rather than worry about how to communicate everything they do, the key is to evoke shared values that can draw an audience in. This mirrors what we see in the research we do for charities on a regular basis: heart trumps head every time – and even more so for this most cynical of audiences.