I believe that charity brands are at a crisis point. The recent blizzard of negative comment bordering on outright hostility which has been aimed at the sector has been fed by issues as diverse as fundraising techniques through to directors’ salaries and brought sharply into focus by the misreporting of the tragedy of Olive Cook not to mention the recent spotlight on the Kids Co.
Ten years ago, when I started working to support charities and their brands, I was met with genuine interest and a tinge of envy. Now, I have to defend the sector against aggressive criticism. If I were the proverbial canary in a coal-mine, I would be chirping loudly and about to keel over. This isn’t just a personal perception. A recent survey on trust in the charitable sector reported a decline from 67% to 51%; charities are now less trusted than corporate bodies.
It goes without saying that charities are dependent on outsiders for funding, and they have a greater potential for supporter engagement than just about any other sector. But without trust, their revenue is, to say the least, at risk.
Fundraising, by its nature, is often the major engagement point with the public. Yet there has been a breakdown in the relationship between the donor and the charity’s brand. In the commercial world, where the buyer and the user are the same person, there is a visible exchange taking place. In the case of fundraising the buyer and the user are different people which means having to tap into deeper forms of motivation.
Having said that, charities above all have a moral imperative to exist, they have an authentic, genuine story to tell, of which fundraising is an essential and honourable part.
The ‘disconnect’ between fundraising and the charity’s original cause arises when the fundamental reason charities raise money, be it for the symbolic African child, battered woman or donkey, is not always what the money is spent on.
Yet trust is vital to the survival of a charity. How can donors ‘trust’ their money to a charity, whose workings they probably will not understand, unless they can, in turn ‘trust’, the aims and mission of the recipient?
Never was E.M.Forster’s dictum truer than in the world of charity branding. Yet connection, and relationship – and therefore trust – needs to be restored between charity and audience.
Let’s take a closer look at the issue. Charity fundraising is an analogue process in a digital world. That is, it can often communicate in one direction only – it talks but doesn’t listen. It’s using a megaphone at a dinner-party. It uses digital media all right, but many charities use it to send out print-based thinking, in formats that actively discourage dialogue and engagement with its would-be donors. That said, UK charities spent £239m or 61% of their publicity budgets on printed direct mail last year – the ultimate in one-way communication.
In this hyper-connected era, people expect to have a dialogue with organisations – especially when they are being asked for money. There is nothing new about this – it is how human psychology works. One hundred years ago, donation was dialogue-based: it began with a conversation: in the street, in a meeting-house or in a church. But in an age of unparallelled communication, that conversation has become lost, and rumour and suspicion (founded or unfounded) travels fast.
Charities are often large, complex organisations. Unfortunately, all too often, in an effort to explain all their activities, they allow their websites and social media to explode and proliferate. In these days of information overload, simplicity and dialogue are key. Truly, less is more.
Sector insularity results in charities often failing to notice and act on what is going on in the wider world around them, and, more importantly, the people they want to talk to. Where they use a thoroughbred digital medium to pull an analogue cart, other organisations use digital media in fundamentally different ways. They:
– foster dialogue between themselves and the outside world
– open up their structures and workings to scrutiny
– create two-way relationships between themselves and their audiences
Some have gone further. They also use digital media to disrupt, revolutionise and reinvent conventional categories. Where once mid-priced accommodation, or taxi services, could be found through Google (if they chose to have a web-page) now Airbnb and Uber have revolutionised the way we think about their services.
It is time – in these days of declining trust and the struggle for revenue – for charities to think strategically, to consider how they can reinvent themselves and their category – not by harnessing digital media as a tool for furthering a conventional approach, but by creating a new world for themselves and their audiences. This means ‘flipping’ their concept of their brand. Instead of the brand being about ‘me’ – the charity – it needs to be about ‘you’ – the donors and stakeholders.
While many fundraisers try to frame their role as a link between the donor and beneficiary, this is often communicated as the ‘charity at the heart of the process’. With digital disruption snapping at our heels, in the form of the Misfit Foundation and a whole host of small ‘direct to beneficiary’ platforms, Google’s Eric Schmidt worryingly predicts the end of the big charity as they fail to effectively justify their role.
The Power of Branding
As a consequence branding has increasingly become the key differentiator to a charity’s survival. However, to be truly transformational the brand needs to reflect flexibility, personalisation, connection and inspiration. And the fact is the brand simply isn’t pulling its weight for many organisations. Certainly it rarely links all the organisational activities in a coherent and engaging way. To be effective branding must build the platform for success across the entire organisation, from the individual needs of fundraising through to advocacy and services.
Ultimately a brand’s sole focus should be achieving an organisation’s goals by building reputation, and using it to inspire people to think and act in ways that help them do so. In other words the brand needs to clearly communicate on an emotional as well as rational level, explaining why the target audience should choose that particular charity.
Above all, a powerful, clear and trusted brand is essential to successful fundraising: it is the brand that gives the organisation voice and meaning. It gives fundraising the required context of the real issues it aims to solve.
Without a strong brand to pave this wider context, fundraising will always struggle.
I offer a four-point solution to the problem of trust, engagement and communication between charity brands and their audiences:
• Rediscover your original mission and purpose in ways that rebuild trust and commitment. Use brand to ‘sell’ the vision and issues that really need to be tackled. This may feel like an uphill, long term struggle, but don’t ignore it: (and) this is central to fighting the fatal collapse in trust.
• Express this through your brand, across all touch points and ensure all activities are linked
• Create a powerful central brand message, one that can act as a platform for fundraising, advocacy and delivery. Link these through a powerful central purpose.
• Exploit digital media as a tool of ‘connectivity’ to create open-ness, dialogue and engagement with your target audiences. Rekindle the sense of movement and personal
Use digital’s strength to focus highly targeted messages. Connect the people who are using the charity’s services, with those who are paying for it and re-orient your brand away from yourself, and towards your audiences.
The sector may feel as though it is in mid-crisis, but in effect the changes it is going through can be leveraged to ensure it recovers the vision and sense of purpose that led to the original foundation of a given charity. This in turn will positively impact and support the fundraising activities from the ground up and should lead to a more resilient structure for the entire industry.
Max du Bois is executive director at brand consultancy Spencer du Bois.
Main image: ear defenders by Renewer on Shutterstock.com
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