CDE project 22: putting the prin­ci­ples and actions into practice

Written by
The Commission on the Donor Experience
April 23, 2017

Clearly, the story suggestions above are only the tip of a very large iceberg, and are simply representative examples. Any individual charity must generate its own supporter (and donor-specific) narratives alongside its institutional brand strategy, and then determine how best to tell them.

However, the logic behind the approach from a fundraising standpoint is simple. If you are a charity leader or communicator: 

“Focus your communication on driving the beliefs that will build donors’ trust.”

More than this, focus on building a licence to innovate among your donors in order for them to grant you the space (and give you the resources) to explore, experiment and evolve in pursuit of your authentic social purpose. Do not simply defend the status quo and retain your licence to operate. Seek to change. To differentiate. To win your battle for social impact. And be bold in how you do it.

Distilling all the analyses from the approach into six simple principles, the Project 22 recommendations are as follows:

  1. Accentuate the Positive
  2. Grow the Grassroots 
  3. Work with the Media
  4. Make it Personal
  5. Be Brave
  6. Be Decisive

Accentuate the positive

We have already seen the ease with which charities place ‘problem-scoping’ stories in the media, and have noticed how infrequently they are able to communicate the social benefit of their efforts.

The net effect creates an impression of charities as whingers - self-important, critical, entitled, and impractical. Even despairing. It is a short step to imagine them as also being incompetent. Rather than spending all ‘our’ time as a sector providing apologetic and explanatory messages in response to negative media, the sector should take every opportunity to tell and retell its positive impact stories from the grass-roots level (see below) by leveraging the power of social media.

In reputational terms, most people still believe that charities deliver good value, that they are caring, and that they are committed to making a difference.

These are the sector’s most valuable reputation assets. 

Rather than erode them with doubt, communicators should take every opportunity to reinforce these credible messages. Charities should work constantly on ways of incorporating positive purpose, impact and value messages into their communication – at all levels, always.

One of the heartening trends across the charity sector is an initiative being led by Giselle Green of NCVO entitled ‘Constructive Voices’. This programme is actively encouraging the media to adopt a more solutions-focused approach to coverage and to present, where appropriate, potential solutions to the problems identified in their news reporting. To support them in this, it is creating a resource for journalists by offering relevant thematic case studies. It is also working to establish links with journalism colleges and departments to ensure the reporters of the future are cogniscent of this emerging field of constructive journalism, and come to see the positive impact of the voluntary sector as a useful source of solutions-focused stories.

This approach is a mix of strategy, which will take time to bear fruit, and practical solutions, which have already had some success in obtaining positive print and broadcast coverage for voluntary organisations.

Grow the grassroots

The most powerful and credible advocates of any brand today are its foot-soldiers: its customers, its employees and its suppliers. This is even the case so for charities, whose supporters give measurable time, money and expertise in return for a ‘feeling’ of doing good. 

Therefore, the most cost-effective investment a brand can make is to grow its grass-roots base and to empower these advocates to speak on its behalf. This approach is not only the logical way to leverage social media networks, but also meets the mainstream media’s need for quirky human interest stories pertaining to individual fundraising and life transformation.

The Children’s Society (see the case study) is one charity that mobilises its volunteers by treating them as a special type of employee, paying their expenses and bringing them inside the organisation for networking and briefings. They then act as local organisers, as fundraising pioneers and even speak to local media on its behalf. The aim is that they should feel as if, and speak as if, they are “part of” The Children’s Society, rather than merely fundraising ‘for’ it.

As Michael Gove has reminded us, nobody trusts experts any more. In our increasingly fact-challenged age, with the death of deference around us, and with social media at every privileged fingertip, charities have an army of advocates at their disposal for storytelling – not just to tell robust, authentic stories, but also as input into their strategies and to hold them to account. They must include them as much as possible in their development, engage them respectfully and treat them honourably.

Of course, the approach has relevance far beyond media engagement. Advocates who invest in one dimension are often predisposed to invest other resources, and are also your most effective face-to-face recruiters.

Work with the media

One thing that becomes clear from looking at today’s media environment is that most media do feel some form of social responsibility. The media also wishes to engage its readership in its social efforts.

From the homelessness campaigning of London’s Evening Standard, to the mass publicity of fundraising events such as Comic Relief, the fusion of media and charity agendas creates win-win situations that should have a spill-over effect in terms of the sector’s reputation.

In late 2016, we saw a deep partnership between Channel 4 and CRUK for ‘Stand Up To Cancer’. In November, a significant media partnership was established with Metro newspaper, based on the NPSCC’s Little Stars campaign. Blending a mix of paid spend, smart integrated planning and corporate advertising partnerships and committed editorial policy can produce a powerful level of impact – and implicitly build donor confidence.

Keep it personal

With facts and meaningful metrics pertaining to social impact being so very difficult to find, the readiest and most persuasive explanation of impact evaluation often lies in individual experiences. Stories of project outcomes, alongside the intelligent use of infographics and properly elucidated statistics are an increasingly common way to communicate impact to donors.

And the same logic applies to media. The media can be receptive to formal annual reporting, particularly for large charities that are a key part of social infrastructure. They may be receptive to an infographic that captures the state of a social problem (as influenced by a charity). However, the media will be much more likely to cover a story if it is peppered with unusual and engaging personal detail.

Charities, far more so than businesses, need to be permanently alert to the potential for personal stories from their beneficiaries and donors. To elicit these stories, they need to communicate personally at all times. Personal communication needs to be part of their DNA.

The Commission on the Donor Experience advocates the development of intimate, personal, respectful and responsive relationships with donors. If charities can consistently behave in this way with their donors, they will be much more likely to behave the same way back.

Building personal connections with charity supporters will give these communicators the insight they need to tell great stories. Supporters will then be much more likely to behave authentically and compellingly when they are put in touch with the media.

Be brave

The central call to action of Project 22 is to invite charities to create strategies that will cultivate their ‘licence to innovate’. Rather than use communication to defend the status quo, they should use it to shape demand; to build the conditions they would wish to see in the world, in which they could achieve the things they most yearn to see. They should stop fixing symptoms and start fixing causes. Stop reacting to change and start creating it. They should exploit their ethical advantage.

Charities are social innovators. When governments are too slow and cumbersome and markets are too greedy, passionate people step up and build novel coalitions to improve the world. They persuade diverse sets of people to step forward into these coalitions and contribute what they can through inspiring visions and clear, committed plans. They then maintain their enthusiasm through relentless, passionate investment in the network of action.

Be decisive

The sector may, at times, risk becoming sclerotic. It can be complacent. It can be overly consensual. It can, oddly, be very conservative. And it can even, at times, exude a strange form of passive aggression, assured of its own righteousness, but ultimately unsure of its effectiveness. It must not yield to these temptations. Individual charities must raise their aspirations and inspire the very best people to join them, the most ambitious donors to fund them, and the most capable volunteers to support them. 

When individual charities do make mistakes and take their donors’ goodwill for granted, they must be swift to acknowledge them and implement clear and committed solutions.

Click on the image below to view project 22 in full - PDF format

About the author: The Commission on the Donor Experience

The CDE has one simple ideal – to place donors at the heart of fundraising. The aim of the CDE is to support the transformation of fundraising, to change the culture to a truly consistent donor-based approach to raising money. It is based on evidence drawn from first hand insight of best practice. By identifying best practice and capturing examples, we will enable these to be shared and brought into common use.

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