CDE project 22: the approach — assimilate existing activity
- Written by
- The Commission on the Donor Experience
- April 27, 2017
Responding to this complex worldview, and with an educational aim in mind, very positive efforts have been spearheaded by the Understanding Charities Group, led by CharityComms and Britain Thinks, under the guidance and support of both the NCVO and ACEVO. The group seeks to explain the changes underway in the sector, namely
- to consolidate a set of consistent messages;
- to supply a strong, educative stream of evidence to back that change;
- to co-ordinate and mobilise charity sector responses to media need; and
- to train its spokespeople and storytellers.
These efforts are highly reasonable and potentially very valuable. They respond directly to the need of the sector to rebut both legitimate and misguided criticisms from mainstream media rapidly. They will undoubtedly help to shore up its license to operate (LTO) and, by ensuring a good information flow, will be as influential amongst regulators and politicians as they are amongst journalists.
The approaches are powerful. They create more consistent communication ‘plumbing’ across the sector that will, slowly but surely, contextualise the negative concerns levelled at the sector, which will rebalance stories to include more positive elements.
However, this LTO approach still leaves certain key challenges unaddressed, from the standpoint of strategic co-ordination:
a. It does not ensure that storylines that are proactively seeded by charities actually go to the heart of the public’s reputational concerns.
b. It does not engage with the nature of the stories that the media likes to tell or what they might be influenced to tell.
c. It does not leverage the things at which charities are actually good, such as eliciting solidarity, mobilising public support and delivering visible, visceral social good.
The deeper, structural risk of the LTO approach, however, is that it may implicitly and unwittingly accept a status quo in which charities learn to compete on cheapness, rather than excellence. It is eminently possible to imagine a dystopian future in which charities forego their expectation of any meaningful ethical premium (underpinned by genuine social responsibility) and become bland social service providers instead - indistinguishable from corporates or state departments.
This risk of strategic passivity leaves the sector open to colonisation by ethically conflicted models of social entrepreneurship and to a slide into co-dependency with an increasingly austere state. If the charity sector ‘brand’ ceases to offer a public accountability framework that allows room for innovation, individual brands will increasingly abandon it as a useful communication ‘tag’, and present themselves as autonomous and independent brands - a path that has already been hinted at by the British Red Cross10.
Rather than abandoning the playing field, although the third sector needs to begin to rediscover and reframe its own reason for being, it must cultivate a clear mandate for exploration, experimentation and growth. It must earn the right to take managed risks in pursuit of clear social impact once again by behaving transparently and maturely towards its donors, and by connecting with them rationally and emotionally to ensure their beneficial social effect.
This need for a proactive, self-confident and strategic approach to growth may simply be characterised as cultivating a ‘Licence to Innovate’ (LTI). This is an agenda within which journalists and media platforms become vital partners, in addition to many others.