2015, the year personal narrative changes charity comms.

Most advertising does not work

Over the festive break I wasn’t alone in feeling that charity campaigning reached new lows of creative differentiation. Not because their cause wasn’t worthy, far from it. The work charities do in the UK and abroad are vitally important. It felt like this year charity campaigning had slipped into a seasonal schedule that us ordinary folk grew quickly familiar with and therefore apathetic about.  Every ad break on TV was littered with charity appeals and I felt myself rolling my eyes and thinking, not another one!

Apathy kills engagement; it attacks relevance and blinds us from awareness.

Too much of anything is bad for you, as the ads for gym membership have been telling us since Boxing Day! December is a time for grateful reflection and family and so it is right that those less emotionally, physically and financially well off than us are in our minds and thoughts too. It started to feel however those charities, like high street retailers, used a creeping barrage of ads on TV, radio and in print that ratcheted up in intensity as every day of December passed, to the point of saturation. I can’t help but think that this would have the polar opposite effect on us that the charities desired. That their marketing, like that of the retailers selling summer holidays the week before Christmas and the shops filling up with Valentine’s Day gifts on Boxing Day had become something to roll our eyes at!

Also, the narrative of the ads, with the exception of The Red Cross appeals from the Ebola affected countries, felt too emotionally distant to be personally relevant and therefore motivating to me. I wrote recently about the impact of Lucy’s Story . That very human story at the heart of Centre Point’s homelessness campaign was unapologetically and painfully personal. It put the people the charity supports front and centre and demanded that we look at what can happen when a human being slips beyond our ability to help.

I feel 2015 must be the year charities embrace personal narrative and importantly make stories locally relevant. Centralised charity marketing functions need to reconnect with the local communities they supports in ways that are more meaningful than curated content. Charities have always been fantastic storytellers, but for too many charities – as the festive ad campaigns revealed – the narrative has become sterile of personal stories and moved towards big shocking statements of statistics. As powerful as those statistics are, they are too big to be relevant to people personally so the power is lost almost immediately. A disconnect exists between communication strategy and the desire for personal localised content.  What a charity wants to say and what we want to hear is clearly disparate in many cases.

It is in the community where the rich seam of personal narrative runs deepest. Collecting and sharing locally relevant content has always been technically and qualitatively difficult and for a long time communications leaders have been wary about relaxing the reins of content creation but relax it they must. Gathering local content is now much easier thanks to mobile technologies and cloud based content management systems and that means more people generating content that the marketing department can put to good use mobilising local communities around messages that resonate with them.

If you want to tell better stories let the people delivering and receiving support tell them.

80,000 homeless young people and Lucy’s story.

Centre Point Cold Christmas Campaign

Consider these two messages. 80,000 young people experience homelessness every year, fact. The graphic and stark image of now deceased previously homeless Lucy’s feet, toes bound on a mortuary table with the message, “Lucy’s not homeless any more!”

Is one more powerfully than the other? They’re both equally relevant, both crushingly affective but we’re human and people not numbers affect us more.

The un-ashamedly stark campaign by Centre point strikes a balance between the size of the problem and the personal story of one young person who didn’t survive homelessness. And whilst the number, 80,000 is shockingly high for any society to be anything but ashamed of, I found myself thinking about Lucy’s story and wondering who she was and how she came to have her toe’s tied together on that stainless steel table.

Looking at the soles of her feet, feet that were swollen and showed the wear-and-tear of living a scratch existence where caring for your feet is hard to impossible. I found myself thinking about when Lucy was a baby, those same feet were once tiny and adorable and would have been played with and tickled and kissed by adoring parents. At least I hope that Lucy had that start to her life and had not been born into a life of abuse and cruelty. I don’t know the answer, I don’t know her life. But it shows that an image and a simple truth touches our hearts and imaginations.

Centre Point gives us enough of a story to grab our attention but leaves room for us to fill in the blank spaces of her life and in doing so make us feel powerfully connected to Lucy. And when that person is dead, as Lucy is, and beyond help we know we can’t make a difference to her life anymore. That’s the point though; Lucy’s story with its tragic ending is beyond us, but we can help those who still could escape homelessness.

Facts are important but the size of a problem, its breadth and depth isn’t real to us. Facts are proof a problem exists and needs a solution. People are real to us, and as in the case of homelessness, it is something we are all just three or four problems in life away from experiencing ourselves.

The real power is always in the people and their story.

A brand spanking new idea for your audience, really?

Campaign Selfie

Another selfie campaign starts to fill your Twitter or Facebook stream.  You get that feeling, you might not vocalise it, but you watch your stream fill up with well-meaning folk doing something to show their support of a charity campaign, and you’re thinking not another one!

This type of short attention, low energy commitment is certainly attractive to a connected audience. It’s social, it’s easily spreadable and it complements one internal view of the audience – “I’m doing my bit, poking fun of myself and I’m being part of the giving group.” But don’t be fooled into thinking they don’t care about the cause. The two are inextricably linked.

The question is. “Will the people you’re looking to engage with start to get bored?”

The truth is an original idea is the rarest of commodities and the internet ensures anything worthwhile is seen by everyone. So do you give up on the selfie campaign? No of course not. But if you want to use a rock solid proven method of engaging donors make sure the energy is focused on your message, crafting the story of your cause and your reason to get attention, not on the method of campaigning.

Jumping on the campaign method bandwagon is fine. But make it about you and us.

A lean, clean digital storytelling machine.

bike generator

When notice is measured in donations powerful stories evoke powerful responses. Sadly for many charities the constant demand on limited resources mean opportunities are missed or worse started, gain traction and then die.

Everyone agrees donors are the life blood of every charity and yet donors themselves feel left out in the cold between periods of campaign activity. Fundraisers too are constantly demanding content to fuel their campaign strategies.

It feels like the engine of notice is at best a stuttering, fuel starved engine. This is an unfortunate reality, unfortunate because the driver (The fundraiser) and the passenger (The donor) want to go where the charity is going; they just aren’t getting sufficient high quality fuel to keep them on their journey.

As a recent blog post on the UK Youth website stated, “As society is becoming increasingly digitised, charities need to keep pace with changing technologies in order to stay relevant to beneficiaries and efficient in their delivery.”

Most people hearing the word technology think social media and social tools. Whilst it’s cheap, super-fast and ensures notice from a much wider audience, especially when it utilises people to share its campaign message, it is fleeting and only scratches the surface of our ability to be moved to give regularly.

The fuel of a charity is content, powerful emotive content and lots of it. But charities, as they often tell us, don’t have any more resources to mine it or the system to ensure it flows around the vital components its marketing and fundraising engine. It has powerful stories at its finger tips but not the efficient means of gathering it and giving it to the donor or the fundraiser.

To be a lean, clean digital storytelling machine charities need to embrace mobile technology as the retail sector did ten years ago. It needs to empower the entire organisation to contribute to story creation, gathering and sharing. It needs to put it in the hands of eager fundraisers to help them raise more money more efficiently and lastly it needs to ensure its donors can sit at its heart and see what their support is funding.

Learning requires us to listen.


I’ve had some interesting conversations in the last couple of days with people from the charity and healthcare sector. High on their agenda is learning, knowledge exchange and engagement.

Evaluating the impact of the work of a large organisation seems at best to be evidence gathering after the ship has sailed, it’s a post event process. This is further slowed down because evidence is buried in people’s email folders, in scattered paper files and in the minutes of meetings!

Those poor folk who have the task of gathering and sharing learning across an organisation face an up-hill task, the painstaking gathering of learning that is filtered into papers, reports and other dust collecting documents.

We relate proof to paper and because we’re super busy we want bite sized executive summaries, bullet points and percentages. We want the slick presentation of quick facts, the bulk of the evidence can exist somewhere else, gathering dust.

Many of the people I spoke to are endlessly looking for and creating new processes to gather learning from colleagues, services users and partners. I was reminded of an article on The Long and the Short online magazine published by NESTA – Fantastically titled, Bureau of reinvention ‘The unimprovable paperclip’. It simply tells the story of the invention of the paperclip. It’s hard to imagine an improvement to the task of gathering paper together but we still do try and mostly fall short of surpassing the humble paperclip that simply does the task, efficiently and cost effectively.

And so it is with learning. We were born with eye lids and not ear flaps for a reason. Hearing has been central to our survival; it has been how we have learned in all cultures at all times in our history. As children we hone our ability to learn through listening, to evaluate tone and timbre so we can understand what is important. And if you want to get your point across, if you want to explain how you feel, we do it face to face so we can tell our story and be listened to.

If I gather a board of directors in a room and they hear people telling the story of their experiences it’s hard to imagine that they wouldn’t listen. All the distractions are stripped away; we become people listening to people. It’s intense, insightful and instantly rememberable.

If you want to learn, first you need to listen.

Bridging the gap.

How to leap a gap with help

Bridging the gap between being inspired and doing something about it, is often a barrier to donations, attracting volunteers and motivating fundraisers. It requires some form of nudge. And to effectively nudge someone into action requires a deep understanding about what motivates and moves them.

The large majority of charities rely on email, print and social media as the engagement nudge. But this to me smacks of pushing people into action rather than engaging with people, building a relationship and gently nudging them. And these forms of media, with the exception of social media are predominately pushed one way.

Engaged donors give more and more often when they know how their support is being used to affect real lasting change and that means being in conversation with the charities they support. There is no greater motivator than being part of the story of successful interventions that facilitates change.

The nudge is the story that guides people to action and the creation and telling of the story involves everyone; from the recipient of support to the fundraiser, from the people delivering services in the field to donors.

A compelling story.

Interwoven strands

What do people value most? I think being valued ranks high on anyone’s list. And how do we show people we value them? We give them a voice and listen to them.

Businesses are in the business of telling stories; the more compelling the story, the more relationships they’ll create that are valuable and long lasting.

If you want to tell a compelling story, craft it from the stories of your customers. Interweave their narrative with your narrative.

The missed opportunity

Dropping the ball

As the title suggests it’s happened, you missed it! You can lament it passing even castigate yourself for it but the moment passed. You entered someone’s space for 20 seconds and you wasted the chance to strike up a conversation.

Touch points are important to communicators and mapping them in both small and large organisations is the only way you get to plan what someone sees whenever you appear in their space.

• The call waiting recording
• The email footer
• The carrier bag
• The receipt

These are all moments when you could touch someone with a message or ask for help. And the more personal it is the better.

Plan the story carefully, map the touch points that bring the viewer back to you so they can see the whole context of the story you want to share and the interaction you want to provide. Leave nothing to chance and measure how effective all your touch points are.

Storytelling is an engagement tool that is as old as we are.


If you ever wanted to explain something, get buy in, share an idea or pull people closer to you, tell a story. After all it’s our oldest medium, it’s never changed and it’s embedded in every culture on the planet.

If I want to tell you about the new app I just bought or the restaurant we had dinner at last night I don’t just say, “Hey, I bought this app for 1.99 it tells me when I need to eat!” or “We were hungry last night so we went to Joe’s restaurant!” That’s not how people talk.

But when I say, “I’ve been thinking about how and what I eat and I wanted to see if there was an app to help me monitor my diet and then suggest when and what to eat so I get a good night’s sleep and I came across this! It’s great it does X,Y,Z and adds up this and that. I love it, it’s really helping me.” You’re engaged, you know why and you know what and you know how. You’re satisfied and more importantly you’ve got a story you can re-tell.

And what about Joe’s? “We wanted to do something different so I searched on line and found Joe’s Place, a new restaurant in town that has a great gluten and dairy free selection on the menu, we were thrilled to find it because it sucks right that most restaurants have like two GF choices on a menu amongst 20 starters and mains!”

Stories give us something other than the plain facts. Plain facts are harder to remember because there’s no human context surrounding them and so the get forgotten really quickly. And who wants to be forgotten quickly?