Overcoming platitudes and parsimony: How do Canada’s overseas NGOs better connect with donors?

Overcoming platitudes and parsimony: How do Canada’s overseas NGOs better connect with donors?

By Dave Korzinski, Research Associate

The Angus Reid Institute recently released two public opinion research reports that explore Canadian views of the overseas development aid (ODA) sector.

These studies expose several broad trends that may be of particular interest to the development community. Some are potentially sources of excitement for Canada’s NGO (non-governmental organization) community, while others manifest challenges.

The Canadian population has competing views about where Canada fits in the development discourse. Let’s start with the good.

First, a strong majority of Canadians, two-thirds (64%), say they feel a moral obligation that their country help those who are worse off overseas.

This may be a product of Canada’s long history of extending an open hand to overseas communities. After the Second World War, and under Lester B Pearson and Pierre Trudeau, generosity defined Canada’s relationship to ODA. Growth in ODA spending ramped up and up, reaching a peak of .53% of gross national income (GNI) in 1974 and maintaining levels close to that through the 1980’s.

The proportion of Canada’s budgetary allotment to ODA fell in the 1990s, however. And, to the chagrin of the NGO community, it has remained much lower than international targets over recent governments.

That doesn’t keep Canadians from proclaiming their magnanimity however. Seven-in-ten (72%) say they take great pride in the development work done by their country’s NGOs overseas. Three-quarters (75%) go on to say that even helping one family, or one village is worth the effort.

When it comes to the reality of spending, however, fissures appear in this base of platitudes. That brings us to the views and perceptions of Canadians that may cause concern in the International development community.

Relatively few Canadians – slightly more than one-in-four (28%) – would like to see their country raise its spending levels above what they are now – less than half of the United Nations’ target of 0.7 per cent GNI. Despite the fact that Prime Minister Pearson led the commission that established that target, Canada has never come closer than that 0.53 per cent in 1974.

So why the disconnect? It appears that in 2018, many Canadians take a ‘Canada First’ approach.

On a governmental funding level, two-thirds of Canadians are looking inward, saying that Canada has enough problems of its own (64%) and should deal with those first before looking to spending money in other parts of the world. Further, on an individual level, seven-in-ten (69) say that given the choice, they would prefer to donate to a charity working in Canada on local issues, rather than an international one (31%).

When it comes to NGOs, there are clear obstacles to growing the pool of potential donors that emerge from these studies. The first of these is the theme just mentioned. How do NGOs working abroad convince Canadians to donate money to them, in a realm of seemingly endless calls to action for different causes? There may be no silver bullet, but the data suggests some areas that would improve the likelihood of support.


Our findings suggest a disconnect between the NGO community and its potential donors. On issues of communication and effectiveness, Canadians voice uncertainty. Only three-in-ten (28%) say that Canadian organizations clearly communicate what it is they’re doing overseas, while the same number (27%) say that the impact of their work is apparent. Even among the most involved Canadians, those who follow their work closely and participate, just one-in-three (34%) claim that aid dollars are having a beneficial impact, suggesting that a large proportion of all groups, not just those with less of a connection to aid work, don’t know how effectively funds are being spent .

Trust and Finance

An extension of the communication umbrella, the biggest concerns Canadians voice in terms of drawbacks to development work involve finances. While one-in-ten say ineffectiveness of the projects (8%) are concerns for them, half (50%) say that corruption that stops funds from reaching those in need is an issue that would make them less confident in ODA. Closely behind, four-in-ten (39%) say that inefficiency in use of the money is a top concern.

For NGOs to thrive and establish trust, communication and efficiency are keys. While they may not have control over how much the government chooses to invest in the foreign aid budget, well-communicated and transparent operations have the potential to woo Canadian donors. Consider that just one-in-four Canadians (27%) fall into the Angus Reid Institute’s categorization as the Hopeless – those who see no real impact to development work and are disinclined to participate.

It’s still a generous country, but perhaps just not as generous as the days of Lester B. Pearson.

Want advance notice for our latest polls? Sign up here!