An epitaph for charities. “We kept our overheads low!”

Playing it safe is dangerous

Dan Pallotta in his TED Talk ‘The way we think about charity is dead wrong’ hit the nail firmly on the head. How can charities compete for attention with for-profits when the sector is routinely policed with a very dangerous question: “What percentage of my donation goes to the cause versus the overhead?”

He closed with a thought that should hit us hard and make us question what we communicate to our audiences. It’s a chilling prophesy that our generation will have as its epitaph, “We kept charity overheads low.”

I titled this post ‘A hearts and minds strategy for charities’ because last night I stumbled across a TV programme, as you so often do these days, that made me think about how we deal with customer expectation and perception in our sector.

It was a documentary aired in 1974 that outlined the strategy the USA adopted to pacify the Vietnamese people to help defeat the Viet Cong insurgency. The strategy, called ‘Hearts and Minds’ was diametrically opposed from ‘search and destroy’, which had been up to that point costly in terms of lives lost over gains. The new strategy focused on political, economic, and social means to re-establish South Vietnamese government control over rural areas and people under the influence of the Viet Cong.

The idea that when things don’t go your way, do something different is a bold but necessary shift in how we influence change. After all, what have you got to lose if you’re not winning? The public perception of charity is a puritanical one. Profit is bad and you shouldn’t spend money on anything other than doing good. It is a mind-set that is deeply rooted in our psyche and one that needs to be tackled.

In a recent report, commissioned by Eduserv and Charity Comms called, ‘How charity IT and digital teams can work together effectively.‘ digital leaders from some of our biggest UK charities highlighted that the key fears within charity boardrooms are; reputation damage, losing public awareness and and therefore fundraising ability, all of which are intrinsically linked. Fear of reputation being damaged is huge, why? Because the fear is fuelled by a perception of public expectation that donations should only go to those the charity is supporting.  The same fear inhibits risk taking, innovation and investment and so the circle of how to stay put and not move forward is complete.

In the last 5 years the world has had to change how it thinks about money. From our public institutions to families living in our communities we’ve seen what happens when money is chocked off. Our belts tighten and we batten down the hatches to weather the storm, but the message of cost cutting is always offset by the message of growth stimulus and kick-starting the economy.

Growth is something you invest in and stimulate; it’s the narrative we hear every day on the news and see in our newspapers. It’s the language of change. Now is the time to challenge the perception of what charities should do with hard given donations.  If the aim of charity is to change the world; it needs to stimulate growth not only with donations, but by taking the necessary risks and investments.

As the advert once stated: “Give a man a fish and he can feed his family for a day, but give him a fishing net and he can feed his family for years.” Charities should be investing in ‘making nets’ and bringing home the message to the public that if they want to change the world, this can only be achieved by stimulating growth through investment. Public support for high risk but high impact projects on Kickstarter is growing. People are ready to accept this as a model for affecting real change in the world, and yes, sometimes they don’t work out, but what we’re doing now isn’t achieving the rate of change needed to be sustainable.

The only thing to fear is an epitaph that reads, “We kept charity overheads low.”