top of page

Child’s Play:

What has happened to children’s charities over the last decade?


Over the last 5-10 ten years, children’s charities have faded significantly in terms of public affection, public awareness and voluntary donations. Part 1 of this briefing looks at data from nfpSynergy’s longitudinal tracking of both the public and MPs’ attitudes and awareness. Part 2 looks at the income trends among the largest children’s charities. The third part of this report tries to speculate what some of the reasons for this decline might be, and the final section sets out some of the ways that children’s charities could try to regain the initiative.

Part 1: The decline in children’s charities’ public & political affection and awareness


‘Children & Young People’ has declined as a favourite cause

At nfpSynergy we have been asking people to tell us what categories their favourite charities fall into for the best part of 15 years. Chart 1 shows the changes in six categories from 2012. Since then ‘Cancer’ has been fairly level around 45%. ‘Animals’ has also stayed level, starting and ending the period at around 35-36%. However, ‘Children and Young People’ has declined from 33% in 2012 to 25% in 2019. Indeed, even ‘Overseas Development’ has only decreased by 3 percentage points in the same period (11% down to 8%) despite its widely publicised issues and strong public dislike in some quarters.

Increasing numbers can’t name a charity working in UK child welfare

Back in 2005, just 1% of the public could not name a charity ‘working in child welfare in the UK’. Yes, just 1%. Since then, the number of those who cannot name a children’s charity has gradually increased to around 39% in 2018. To put this in context, the number of those who can’t name a charity working in animal welfare was 1% in 2005 and 47% in 2018, with cancer at 8% and 44% respectively. In other words, all of the three favourite causes have seen an increase in those who can’t name a charity that works in each area.

It’s worth saying that these changes include a shift in methodology from telephone to online which may account for some of the change1. Despite this change in methodology, we are seeing a continuing raise in the number of people who can’t think of children’s charities in our online research (Chart 2), as well as for the other two categories.

Chart 2 shows more detail on these measures - the percentage of those who ‘can’t think of any’ when asked to name a children’s charity in 3 different areas from 2012. Here the percentages increased from 28% in 2013 to 39% in 2019 who can’t think of a ‘child welfare’ charity, while the other two remain fairly stable.

Children’s charities decreasing in terms of spontaneous awareness

As part of our longitudinal tracking we have asked the public to name the first charity that comes to mind. We have tracked the cumulative spontaneous awareness of all the UK children’s charities

(excluding Save the Children or UNICEF UK for this analysis). Around 1998 this cumulative spontaneous awareness was about 30%. The total grew steadily till 2002, when it hit 40%, then plateaued for a while and peaked at over 50% in 3 out of 5 2011 data waves.

In 2012, nfpSynergy’s four waves of online data showed the average spontaneous awareness of the big four UK children’s charities2 at 40-45%, while the last two online waves of 2018 and the first two online waves of 2019 were in the range of 25-30%.


1 People may feel greater pressure to give an answer when talking to a person over the phone compared to an online survey.

Political awareness and contact

Paralleling the decline in public awareness and affections, children’s charities have seen a decline in their awareness amongst MPs. We ask MPs several times a year which charities (or pressure groups or voluntary organisations) have impressed them in the last six months. This is a kind of spontaneous awareness for MPs in their role. Back in 2002, the total for the leading children’s charities was over 20%, hitting over 40% in 2003. Since then it has declined steadily, last having been above 10% cumulatively in 2010.

Chart 3 shows the levels of ‘don’t knows’ among MPs (in the red bar) when asked to name a charity in the area of ‘child welfare in the UK’ with the named charities greyed out and anonymised.

One of the factors potentially driving these changes is levels of contact with charities. We asked MPs what contact they have had with children’s charities, and in 2002 just 18% couldn’t recall any contact with a named children’s charity, but by 2016 this had increased to 34%.


NSPCC, Barnardo’s, Action for Children and the Children’s Society. If we include other less well-known UK children’s charities, the number increase a little but the pattern remains the same.

Part 2: Income trends in children’s charities


Voluntary income is in decline

Alongside the decrease in public and political awareness, there has been a decrease in voluntary income over the last 5 or 6 years, and a mixed picture on non-voluntary income. Chart 4 shows the trends in voluntary income for the leading children’s charities3. In the accounts for the year ending 2013 the total voluntary income was £196 million and by 2018 the total voluntary income was £170 million. Each of the charities in our analysis had a lower voluntary income in 2018 than 2013. The biggest percentage drop was 27% and the smallest was 7%. In contrast, total voluntary income of all organisations that are now in the Charity Financials Top 10 Fundraisers list has grown since 2013, with the exception of Save the Children, who did worse in 2017 than they did in 2013 by 24%. Yet, while children’s charities income has declined, the expenditure on fundraising has not, remaining at almost exactly the same level as it was in 2013, meaning that fundraising is becoming more expensive.

It is almost certainly the case that some of this drop is down to the difficult economic and social pressures on charities during that period. However, many of the other top 10 leading fundraising charities have either increased (e.g. Macmillan and BHF4) or held their voluntary income fairly steady during the same period (e.g. Cancer Research UK, RNLI). As a result, it is hard to explain the decline in voluntary income purely on the changes in the wider marketplace.


This analysis is based on NSPCC, Barnardo’s, Action for Children and the Children’s Society. Save the Children and UNICEF were excluded for operating principally overseas and Prince’s Trust appear to have integrated other countries in their accounts making it hard to tease out the trends. 4 Macmillan has increased from £189 million in 2013 to £252 million in 2017, while BHF has gone from £95 million in 2013 to £135 million in 2018

Non-voluntary income increases overall

As Chart 4 indicates, the non-voluntary income (the total income minus the voluntary income) shows a more complicated picture. For non-voluntary (mainly income earned from government contracts or other ways of selling services), the picture is mixed. NSPCC has increased its non- voluntary income from £9 million to £21 million, while the biggest (and astonishing) absolute increase is for Barnardo’s who went from £166 million to £261 million between 2013 and 2018.

While NSPCC appears to have focused on increasing its consultancy income selling its expertise to other charities and agencies, Barnardo’s seem to have been very successful in winning local authority and central government contracts.

Are these declines common for other sectors?

It is true that certain charities in other sectors have also seen a decline in voluntary income, political and public awareness or affection. As the data for the number of ‘don’t knows’ shows, it is not just children’s charities that have seen a deterioration in their awareness figures. This highlights one of the challenges for children’s charities in my analysis: the context in which all charities are operating is increasingly tough. Indeed, part of my argument is that it’s the breadth of areas in which the metrics we look at for children’s charities are in the negative that is the issue, not any single indicator. Some of these issues are specific to children’s charities, and some aregeneric across all charities.

The case of children’s charities stands out because:

  • It has markedly declined as a favourite cause, while others have not

  • The spontaneous awareness of children’s charities has declined, and while other individual charities have also declined, it doesn’t appear to be common across another sector in the same way

  • The political level of ‘don’t knows’ has also increased as Chart 3 shows – which is not as marked in other sectors

  • The voluntary income of children’s charities has declined markedly – more strongly than other sectors

And the converse question is also worth asking – is the decline only about the fortunes of the NSPCC? While there is no doubt that a decade ago, the NSPCC was a market leader for charities, and today it would struggle to claim that title, the changes are more than just about one charity. The voluntary income for all four charities in our income analysis has decreased. The decline infavourite charity status reflects on all children’s charities, and the decline in political and public awareness is across the board – though undoubtedly NSPCC’s declining profile have contributed to the malaise.

Part 3: Possible reasons behind the decline


Our data and analysis so far show a decline in children’s charities in the public affection as a favourite cause, and a decline in the spontaneous awareness of the top children’s charities and a decline in their awareness with MPs. This is accompanied by a decline in voluntary income over the last 6 years and a more mixed picture on earned income. In that case, what could be the reasons for the decline? It’s very difficult to know for certain but here are four possible reasons which have probably all contributed to varying extents.

Branding - what is the difference between the children’s charity brands?

Here’s a simple question – what is the difference between the work of the best-known children’s charities? I for one, couldn’t tell you the difference between the expertise, or specialisms, or USPs of the main children’s charities. What is it that Barnardo’s do that Action for Children don’t? Why would a donor give to NSPCC rather than the Children’s Society if they were interested in particular types of children’s work? I have even been told by people who work in the children’s sector that they aren’t sure!

Compare this lack of clarity to the overseas or medical sector. If you want to support an overseas charity you know that UNICEF does children, WaterAid does clean water & sanitation, Red Cross does emergencies, Oxfam does long-term development and campaigns, and Sightsavers does eyesight. Overseas charities are largely well differentiated. The same is true for medical charities which are largely differentiated by condition/illness or research vs care. The differentiation between children’s charities is much harder to discern; so, when other aspects of the external climate have got harder, the weak brand foundations have begun to tell.

A more complex weakness is, ironically, the lack of competition between the children’s charities. Macmillan and CRUK have both used their intensive rivalry to improve their overall fundraising and communications performance – akin to the great sporting rivalries like Ali and Fraser, or Federer and Nadal – the presence of the other makes them up their game.

This doesn’t seem to have happened with NSPCC and Barnardo’s, or Action for Children and the Children’s Society. They don’t compete, just co-exist.

Profile – what campaigns have the children’s charities being running over the last decade?

15 years ago, the Full Stop campaign was high in public consciousness and Barnardo’s and NSPCC were each putting out advertising to grab the public consciousness. I could make a strong case that the Full Stop campaign pulled the children’s sector up by its bootstraps and made it raise its game. The profile-raising work made children’s issues and children’s charities have a louder and greater voice in the public consciousness.

At present I struggle to think of any high profile, longer-term campaigns to shift public awareness on children’s issues. Even in parliament it is not clear what the big issues are that children’s charities want to campaign on. There is the occasional foray in internet safety, child poverty or child sex abuse, but nothing with sufficient duration and consistency to reach public consciousness and boost awareness. The beneficial effects of Full Stop in raising awareness of children’s charities, and reminding people why it was a cause they cared about, have long since run out. And now the brand confusion is more clearly exposed and has been compounded by the events of the child sex abuse scandals as I discuss next.

Events – child sex abuse scandals have run through the news in recent years

Revelations about historic child sex abuse scandals involving a variety of public institutions and celebrities have featured highly in the news over the last decade. In addition, child grooming scandals in Rotherham, Oxford and elsewhere have also come to light. The public have been rightly appalled. The very good news is none of these scandals seem to have involved children’s charities. The bad news is these scandals seem to have left children’s charities mute. It’s easy to see their dilemma: if those charities are on the frontline with children, why didn’t they know what was going on? Why was it journalists, MPs and some other professionals who did the whistle blowing and not children’s charities?

If the same messages or advertising from Full Stop (e.g. ‘together we can end child cruelty’) were put out today they would be untenable - child abuse has been endemic in many aspects of society and children’s charities seemed to know nothing about it! The child abuse scandals seem to have had two effects: firstly, the saturation of the media with stories about children that weren’t driven by the children’s charities, and secondly, making it much harder for the children’s charities to know what they can safely talk about. Children’s charities are neither making the news, nor responding to it in any way that reaches the public consciousness. It’s a depressing picture.

These first three factors – branding, profile, and events – are specific to children’s charities. The next two are more applicable to charities in general.

Austerity – government contracts have grown and grants have shrunk

The cutbacks in government expenditure are well documented over the last 10 years. The impact on charities has been particularly noticeable in smaller charities and those who received grants rather than contracts. While the total amount of money that charities receive from government is relatively stable at around £15 billion a year, the big shift has been from grants to contracts which have halved in size in recent years (from £6 billion down to £3 billion). This shift is essentially from a pot of money with which a charity can pursue its own priorities, to one in which it must pursue the government’s tendering requirements either at a local or national level.

Some of the large children’s charities have substantial incomes from government contracts. As we have already seen, there have been winners and losers in terms of government income in the last years. The effects on strategies and priorities for those with substantial government income are harder to discern.

Let me hypothesise. Winning government contracts requires real focus and attention to what is required by government. This is hard to reconcile with brand or campaigns, which might be great for voluntary income or profile, but out of step or even in conflict with what the image for a contract requires. It doesn’t help to win a contract from a local authority to run disabled children’s services if the charity’s brand is all about child safety online. So, where voluntary income is a minority of revenue, I suspect the tendency is to keep a flexible ‘vanilla’ brand allowing the organisation to be all things to those who are contracting.

In this sense those with large portions of contracted government income and small amounts of voluntary income are especially susceptible to the need to be relevant to commissioning officers rather than donors. Many disability charities are also in this situation, but they at least are differentiated by the type of disability they address.

Part 4: What next – ways out of this situation


To reverse the trends of the last decade and boost voluntary income and profile, there are a number of actions that children’s charities could take:

  • Develop a clear, distinctive organisational image and brand. It’s happened in the overseas sector and they have raised money out of all proportion to their public popularity. The end goal must be for the public to understand and differentiate the work of the major children’s charities.

  • Raise profile and campaign for change. There are many challenges facing children: Internet safety, poverty, knife crime, mental health problems and many more. Yet children’s charities seem to have developed a form of collective torpor. Get out therecampaigning, speaking out, raising profile and demonstrating a passion for improving the lives of children. Every children’s charity wants that; they just don’t seem to campaign on it any more – at least not in a way that reaches public consciousness.

  • Get great at fundraising. Many charities have developed fundraising activities, which drive both income and awareness: The Poppy Appeal, World’s Biggest Coffee Morning, Race for Life and so on. It’s hard to think of a single fundraising campaign that has captured the public imagine, or a children’s charity that has stood out for its consistency and focus in terms of fundraising. It’s happened in the past......

There is nothing permanent or irreversible about the situation which children’s charities find themselves in. There are no doubt some small and medium size charities that are thriving. However, it would take positive and proactive energy and strategic determination to escape the fundraising and profile decline which children’s charities now find themselves in.

Joe Saxton September 2019



bottom of page