How could a ‘life cycle analysis’ help aid organizations engage better with the public?

Following on the post (and great comments) about whether Oxfam should get serious on changing social norms, I’ve been thinking about a ‘life cycle life cycleanalysis’ approach to INGOs’ engagement with the public. The starting point is that at different ages, people have different assets and constraints (eg disposable time, cash, openness to new ideas). Obviously, one shouldn’t generalize – not all 20, 40 or 80 year olds are the same – but just for the sake of argument, let’s do so anyway. In the table below, I’ve allocated columns to Age, Assets, Constraints, Possible Aims for INGO engagement and entry points for that engagement. See what you think

Age Assets Constraints Possible INGO Aims Points of Entry
0-5 Blank canvass, crucial age for shaping norms No power, money Building progressive social norms Parents (esp mothers), faith organizations
6-18 Forming political opinions, lots of energy/idealism/time, can influence parents Little money, power More detailed shaping of values and opinions; broad campaigning;  fundraising; badgering parents on eg advocacy or ethical consumerism Schools, youth celebrities, faith orgs
18-24 Energy, time, idealism. Some future leaders/decision makers become easier to identify thanks to ‘sorting hat’ of university/discipline Little experience, influence Influencing future leaders eg via internships,  volunteering, engagement with elite universities; long term recruitment Elite universities/disciplines; Cultural ambassadors
25-45 Kids, growing influence in workplace (eg govt officials) Kids (permanently knackered, broke) Some advocacy with those in positions of influence, access to kids on norms; Long term retention Progressive kids’ clubs (cf Woodcraft Folk); Light touch contact maintenance (email etc); Some sectoral advocacy engagement
46-65 More time (kids growing up, flying the nest), money, influence, experience Still tied up in work/careers FundraisingSome advocacy; Advisory roles Advisory /mentoring roles to Oxfam teams and partners? Some specialist advocacy groups?
65- Time, contacts, money Energy levels and health declining over time Grey Panther advocacy groups; Fundraising Use supporter databases to identify clusters of people with similar experience/ interests; Identify ‘old men in a hurry’ to convene issue-specific advocacy groups (eg of ex bankers or accountants)


So who makes the best campaigner then?
So who makes the best campaigner then?

When I did this exercise, what struck me was how little it resembles how Oxfam (and presumably other NGOs) currently engage with the public. We do next to nothing to shape norms during the early years of childhood, either directly or through parents and faith organizations. We see campaigns as primarily a role for youth, despite their lack of contacts, influence or staying power. Older people are too often treated as walking chequebooks rather than highly networked veterans with decades of experience we could draw upon.

Beyond just adapting engagement to the shifting sands of a person’s life cycle, we also need to move from ‘broadcast to conversation’ – a management slogan more often spoken than followed. That means acknowledging and responding to people’s varied and individual talents, experience, desires and agency, with ample space for feedback, suggestion and initiative as part of being an INGO supporter.

Exciting, and probably the way we have to go anyway, not least because people’s expectations are changing and they want more of this customized treatment and less of the ‘just trust us, we’ll make sure your money is well spent’ stuff. Customization could even extend to ‘disintermediation’ – finding a way to put people directly in contact, whether on donating (‘click here to send your cash straight to the SIM card of a person living in poverty’, a la GiveDirectly) or advocacy (‘sponsor a Women’s Rights Activist in a country of your choice’).

All good stuff, but it poses a huge challenge to business as usual, both in terms of the IT systems to allow all this to happen, but perhaps more fundamentally, to the culture and attitudes of traditional aid organizations.

Thoughts? (and thanks to Lizzie Williams and Foyez Syed for conversations on earlier drafts. Only fair to point out that Foyez was a bit scandalized by my blatant elitisim on universities and thought we should also be challenging the current system by promoting and developing leaders from different backgrounds. Fine, but we will never have the resources or scale to make much of a dent on that one, I fear.)

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7 Responses to “How could a ‘life cycle analysis’ help aid organizations engage better with the public?”
  1. Paul

    This (3 year old) blog – struck a chord with me. Whether INGOs could act more as brokers or intermediaries in establishing relationships and a feeling of more direct engagement between people and local organisations in the global south seems to me worth exploring. There were all sorts of good reasons why INGOs moved away from child sponsorship and unqualified volunteers but in the process I wonder if they lost something important in the relational aspects of how publics in the west and south relate to each other.

  2. Ken Smith

    I think fundraisers do tend to work on this taking supporters on a journey with us from whatever point of engagement we can get but agree there is still a way to go in treating people as individuals and not a broad mass. Interesting ( and true I think ) that you see the 65+ with money as one of their assets ,but targeting pensioners as financial donors might be a difficult strategy to justify to the public.

  3. Silke St.

    I think the analysis would benefit from taking gender into consideration, in the sense of roles & responsibilities in particular for ages 25-45 (but also in later years), but also in the sense of priorities (possibly), preferences and types of engagement.

  4. Alice Evans

    Two big issues for me:

    (1) Older people are often major campaigners, activists and voters yet struggle to use the internet. In the UK, 5.3 million people have never been online. And they are mostly over 75. So NGOs might think, ‘How do we improve our comms with this older group?’. Do we use a different type of messaging? Posters in bridge clubs? Or do we make our online campaigns more accessible for this group? It could be something simple as reducing the click-throughs on the Oxfam website.

    (2) Rather than just look at the strengths and weaknesses of different groups, a progressive NGO like Oxfam might look at values: ‘which group is most likely to be sympathetic to our campaigns?’. Youth – right? (Unless ofc you’re in France I accept that values arent fixed, and Oxfam could mould these, but recognising that Oxfam can only play a small part in a much bigger set of myriad influences, it might be more efficient to go for those already sympathetic?

    [In which case you might not bother with comms for older (often anti-migration) folk… (joke, of course there are many passionate progressive older people)