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.

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.

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?