CDE project 22: the approach — can­vas expert opinion

Written by
The Commission on the Donor Experience
April 26, 2017

This project consulted widely, both with individual charity communicators and with acknowledged pan-industry experts, as explained in Appendix 3.

Inevitably, these consultations revealed a range of valuable but informal insights which, although they do not form part of the final project conclusions, create a consistent and sophisticated backdrop to the implementation thereof. 

There are three main conclusions from the general input. Firstly, it reinforced the idea that “a charity” is often unhelpfully understood as a concept. Secondly, that the role and requirements of donors are poorly understood, and that the sector faces a particularly challenging media environment. The three issues are:

An ill-defined sector brand

a. The simple legal definition of a charity covers a wide variety of operational and commercial models.

b. The reputation of the ‘charity’ sector brand is often at odds with the reputation of specific charity brands.

c. Charity as an act of giving, charity as an act of helping, charity as a means of altruistic social organisation and charity as a legal structure are all included in the brand, and are difficult to separate.

d. There are significant regional differences in charity reputation, and the English charity-sector malaise may not be universally replicated.

e. There is also a wide diversity of perception across different brand types – notably between campaigning brands and solution brands, between institutionally funded providers and individually funded ones, between small and large charities, and between membership propositions and donation propositions, to name a few.

We ignore these differences at our peril. The communication for any brand must, of course, be unique. What will be consistent across them, however, are the same broad drivers of trust, as per the Charity Commission’s research.

Poorly-understood donors

a. Donors may be treated as altruistic benefactors who give money freely to an inspiring, emotive cause.

b. They may be treated as customers to be ‘sold’ crisply packaged social outcomes,

c. Or they may be treated as investors in long-term social impact who provide committed funding for visible change.

The point of the simple summary above is merely to highlight that, although the three ‘modes’ of giving are not mutually exclusive, they inspire very different invitations to give, and they demand very different forms of follow-through in communication.

It is the benefactor’s assumption that contributes to the public expectation that even full-time charity workers should be volunteers, surviving on thin air. And it is by thinking of donors as benefactors that it becomes acceptable to approach them with emotionally distressing images, creating the ever diminishing returns of poverty porn. 

It is by thinking of supporters (donors) as customers that charities can justify investment in sophisticated - and expensive - merchandising, membership and sponsorship packages to reward long-term donors. It is this same customer ethos that creates a language of ‘upselling’ and ‘cross-selling’ different donation packages to supporters, and so legitimises the complex array of interruptive tools and engagement approaches that create increasing noise and decreasing returns.

It is by thinking of donors as long-term, social investors that we create an upward-spiralling demand for improved governance, transparency and accountability. Finally, it is by seeing donors as investors that results in designing over-prescriptive and assumptive solutions, tied to highly restrictive funding constraints: programmes that fail to respond to rapidly changing needs on the ground. 

It is worth noting, in passing, that these models do not only have negative consequences. There are also many positive implications of these outlooks, but it is the failure to recognise these mental models for what they are, and to develop a self-aware and dynamic accountability structure around them that causes problems to arise.

In conclusion, it is the inherent conflicts inside these complex accountability models that create the space for negative media portrayals, which strike directly at the heart of the trust drivers:

Fundraising should be honest:

  • However, today’s professionalised fundraising still relies on hyperbolic, transactional marketing to feed the cash ‘funnel’.

Donations should get to the end cause

  • However, the costs of proactive donor acquisition in a crowded homogeneous market greatly exceed that which would be deemed acceptable by a typical donor

Charities should be well-managed

  • However, the economies of scale that large charities can achieve also entail demands for infrastructure, engagement and regulatory burdens that require costly professional expertise. Size produces its own management challenges.

Charities should be trusted to self-manage

  • However, governance is provided by trustees who are generally unpaid, untrained and sometimes inappropriately skilled

Charities should make a difference

  • However, evaluating complex social or environmental outcomes can often be inordinately expensive to achieve, even when it is clear that donors do care about them. 

In these circumstances, in which donors and charities do not really, honestly and transparently understand each other (or even themselves), there will continue to be a steady flow of negative stories from the sector, many of which will reach the media.

The final consistent thread in this informal stakeholder input was to reinforce the challenging nature of the media environment.

A problematic communication environment

Anecdotal feedback also highlighted the following concerns:

  • The political climate for socio-environmental investment remains febrile. In a post-Brexit, public austerity scenario, the nature and strength of environmental and social policy, and international development commitments is uncertain. The media is certain to adjust its story gathering according to the news flow this creates.
  • The mainstream press, which has substantial on-line dominance, has led aspects of the investigation of the sector and remains a constant source of critique and criticism. This is somewhat biased towards - but not exclusive to - the right wing media (see 4 below)
  • There are few natural ‘slots’ for habitual positive charity stories in the mainstream media, particularly when compared to financial reporting; for example, political commentary, sport, entertainment, fashion or even the arts
  • There are too few natural, sophisticated, authoritative voices to speak for the sector.
  • The quality of financial data pertaining to the sector as a whole is generally poor, out of date and difficult to interpret or to action.
  • ‘Softer’ data pertaining to social impact are compiled inconsistently across the sector and, in any case, are undervalued by media (and readers) when compared to the simple, blunt measures of financial performance.

Against this challenging backdrop, the sector faces an uphill struggle to restore trust. Its first, defensive, course of action must be to improve the consistency of presentation of the sector’s benefits. To this end, the existing licence to operate approach led by the NCVO et al., the Understanding Charities Group, goes a long way to addressing the collateral damage of these intrinsic conflicts, but it does not address the source. 

The sector – and its leading (not necessarily its biggest) participants - must devise strategies to define their own license to innovate, disrupting the media’s reductivist assumptions of what charities are and can be, and hence how they should be covered. It must establish a new assertive social contract, not unlike the paradigm shift that accompanied the corporate world’s embrace of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) from the 1990s onwards.7




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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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