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Identity crisis for charities

By Peter Gilheany

15 September 2016

As umbrella terms go, “charity” is a pretty good one to be lumped in with, certainly better than political party or bank. Despite the recent and worrying decline in public trust and confidence in the charity sector, there remains a huge well of public goodwill. It isn’t just the public either – 69% of MPs say that charities play an important role in today’s Britain (“UNDER THE MICROSCOPE – Examining the future of charities in Britain”, CAF, September 2015).

Charities are one of the oldest forms of mission-led organisations, and their core, positive purpose of delivering that mission is the main reason why they retain such high levels of support. Doing something for charity is our cultural shortcut for indicating we are doing something positive and progressive.

Many charities have made the most of this clarity and purity of purpose in their engagement with the outside world, rightly leading with the difference they make or are seeking to make.

In doing so, a lot of money has been raised and millions of people have been inspired to take positive action, but sometimes that communication obscures the complexity that delivering against mission involves. This complexity is two-fold: firstly, the issues and problems that charities seek to tackle are invariably complicated, difficult and hard to define, let alone adequately deal with; secondly, the operation of many charities in pursuit of their mission is complicated, dense and sometimes difficult to discern.

The trouble comes when a charity fails to acknowledge either of these areas of complexity or even actively seeks to brush over them in the desire for engagement and getting people to put their hands in their pockets. This approach is doing a disservice both to the great work done by charities and the audiences they are seeking to engage. Worse than that, it is one of the reasons why public confidence has eroded recently.

Clarity, simplicity and impact should not be at the expense of accuracy and verisimilitude, audiences can cope with the reality of how you create change. Charities can change the world, but that change doesn’t happen quickly, there are steps back as well as forward and substantial change cannot be achieved by one organisation alone. That realism is very much in line with current climes and we believe needs to be more widely adopted as one of the drivers of communications in the sector.

It is important that charities get this right, because they are not the only game in town when it comes to making a difference as businesses are increasingly getting in on the act. Businesses, in fact, like us. We have just been named one of the world’s best B Corps, the growing movement of businesses looking to create social change. It isn’t just small businesses like ours, it is really significant that a behemoth like Unilever has launched a campaign like #brightfuture and is promoting it so heavily –

Equally significant is the positioning of their consumer brands as leading the change. And they are not the only one – Kenco has been running its Coffee v Gangs initiative for the last few years, with its own national advertising campaign and clearly positioning the business as the agent of change. More and more commercial brands are building their corporate message around their social purpose and impact. At the same time, some charities are being accused of being too business-like, too managerial in their approach. In some areas of service provision it can be difficult to tell the charities and for-profit businesses apart.

Charities must make the most of what makes them different from other players such as businesses and what really is a differentiator is the complete focus on social mission. Those who do not keep that front and centre in all their communications risk blending into the background.