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.”

9 things charity CEOs should do in 2015.

The road ahead in 2015
  1. Go mobile. Most people access online content via a mobile or tablet device and online giving, especially mobile giving is growing exponentially. If your web content isn’t responsive you’ll lose visibility and a valuable route to donations.
  2. Embrace SMS donations. Yes you lose out on customer data for your CRM and the opportunity for repeat donations but here’s the thing. The donor journey to making a donation is more important than your need for data. Asking someone to fill in twenty fields of information, as most charities do, is not good.
  3. Lose the fear of reputation. Your epitaph shouldn’t be, “We kept the charity’s overheads low.” It should be, “We took risks because the need is great. When we lost we lost small but when we won we won big and made a real difference.”
  4. Plan for a changing demographic. Your donor right now will be different from the donor five years from now. If you still want to be around and relevant to your audience ensure your customer proposition reflects the changing nature of giving and givers.
  5. Invest heavily in the next generation of charity professionals. You don’t need to know what they know; you just need to know they’ve got the changing landscape of digital engagement covered for your organisation. And let them make decisions.
  6. Create diversity in teams. Partner with for-profit companies and people from widely different sectors. Their view of a problem or opportunity will create solutions you’d never arrive at on your own.
  7. Loosen the reigns of content curation. A polished sanitised message, even when it’s spoken by a well known actor, isn’t as powerful as real human narrative. All conversations are human, not corporate.
  8. Shake the tree. Delivering the same activity you delivered last year will hopefully bring you marginal gains or acceptable marginal loses. Is that really how you change the world?
  9. Break the ‘us and them’. People working in the field, volunteering or fundraising know more than you do. Get out of the room and go find out what’s going on, what’s working and what’s not working. Everything you need to learn is at the point where the service meets the service user.

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.

What I’ve learnt about fundraising and know about fishing.

Fundraising, charity sector

The cost, value and frequency metric

I’ve spoken to lots of charity fundraisers during the past couple of months. From international charities to local community trusts the fears, focus and fundraising challenges are felt equally in these organisation despite being wildly different in terms of size, budget and resources. Focus is obviously on revenues but they fear losing their audiences when attention and traction comes from short bursts of activity. Keeping donors, volunteers and fundraisers engaged every day in your cause or campaign is a challenge for all organisations.

Sophisticated charities measure everything in their marketing and fundraising funnel; the cost of acquisition, life time value and frequency of donation over cash value, all enable them to understand historic trends in donor behaviour and predict how small changes in variables can have a big impact on revenues.

Playing with the metric predictors is important. Do more of activity A and get more attention from audience B which might give you smaller value donations but over a longer period. Or do activity C and get less attention from new donors but increase the donor value of audience D. Tweaking the slide rule of capital investment, as you can do on any comparison website, lets you see a potential outcome based on any given set of variables without committing a single penny of investment. This mapping activity is a key function of any business but by itself, as a sole method of planning future activity, I believe it narrows the view to the point it can restrict the options available to the decision maker.

When all you decision about planning are based on historical metrics your field of play gets narrower and narrower.

You stop looking outside the organisation and into different sectors of the market to see how products and services are sold to customers there. You stop being adventurous and you stop embracing change because the consequences are potentially huge.

But the consequences of a narrow view are also potentially huge. You could commit to five campaigns a year – most likely the same campaigns you delivered last year – measure your metrics and report the percentage differences year on year. But your audience moves on, it gets exposed to new ideas, media and campaigns and you risk dropping out of their mind and off their radar.

Ring fencing a platform

A lot of fundraisers are acutely sensitive about their websites and don’t like taking donors away from their domains. I can understand this, a lot of resource is invested in getting donors there; SEO, Direct Mail, Social Media, TV, Print and Radio advertising all are pointing in one direction, toward the website where the donate button is and where the retail store lives. It’s also a controlled, known measurable space. Everything on there is designed to transport a donor through content towards a call to action. Again, this speaks of an organisation operating within known boundaries, it is a platform that creates metrics and reports, both of which are important, vitally important, but it inhibits real engagement beyond the moment of a campaign and I can’t help but think it cuts the volunteer, fundraiser and donor out of the ongoing story of the charity.

Short cutting the funnel

If a charity’s marketing mix is sign posting donors towards its website it is in effect a huge and sometimes expensive net cast over an ocean of potential donors. It’s also a net with holes in it through which donors are lost as their attention is lost. So the task is simple, fill the net and fill the funnel so we get as many potential donors as possible down the funnel and to our donate button or retail store.

This is still a numbers game. Spend £000’s to get £000’s more. Pour 100,000 potential donors in the top of the funnel because we know from data 100,000 will deliver us 1,000 donors out of the bottom. We sacrifice potential for a known and by staying in our comfort zone.

Short cutting the funnel requires us to be differently minded and to tinker and play. It requires us to be growth hackers in our organisation, free from constraint with the sole remit of delivering better educated, better engaged, ready to spend donors further down the fundraising funnel. It requires us to be better at fishing. In fact it looks for ways to deliver donors through the side of the funnel closer to the donate button in greater numbers and by doing so reduce the cost of acquisition at the top of the funnel.

Growth hacking looks for value inside the organisation that can deliver instant value and learning to the customer, value that pulls them to us rather than we going looking for them. Hackers are more concerned about achieving an objective quickly rather than going through a prescribed route to achieve the same objective.

Lots of media platforms provide better engagement, mobile particularly but not exclusively. And by engagement I mean a two way conversation across all platforms. It requires investment in time and resource without the guarantee of an immediate return. It demands a management team relaxes the rains and does things differently. In the commercial world there a lots of example of this in practice and one particular favourite I’d point you in the direction of is Hubspot. Hubspot short cuts the marketing funnel by providing Marketing Grader, a free online tool that requires no sign up and enables users to grade the online marketing performance of any website. It’s particularly useful for grading one website against a competitor and if you want a report of a website’s performance you can chose to provide your email and it will send it to you.

The company, through Marketing Grader delivers value immediately to the user. In a competitive marketplace it disrupts the market, whilst reducing the size of its marketing effort and delivers an educated, ready to buy customer deep inside it’s marketing funnel. It’s still interested in measurement and metrics, it still values performance data but it decided that if it wanted to shorten it’s funnel, it had to do something differently. This tool was already available within the Hubspot Platform, it simply decided to make it available for free outside the platform to hook high quality eager customers in.

Numbers are important, performance is imperative but so is the freedom to embrace new technologies and share what your audiences value. When charities are reporting consecutive years of stagnation in donor numbers and difficulties in attracting attention to their cause they must re-evaluate their funnel, identify what their donors, fundraisers and volunteers truly value and share it with them.

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.