Redefinition for charities before marketing

The charity sector is going through a paradigm shift in public understanding and receptiveness to charitable giving, donation and value. Indeed, the very concept of "charity" and the place it occupies in our hearts, minds and conscience is being undermined and questioned.

The charity sector must take a good hard look at itself, its governance systems, conduct, remit, purpose and the whole meaning of charity. This should include a reflection on its vital role in society. With society constantly going through profound change as individuals and communities redefine their roles, place, aspirations and life outlook, adapting is now essential to charities remaining relevant and fulfilling their reason for existing.

Charities, individually and, more importantly, in collaboration as a demonstrable, cohesive force for societal benefit, need to do this as a priority over perpetuating the growing problems by spending ever more money through marketing and fundraising activity.

Change in the charity landscape

We see complete rethinking going on in the public and corporate landscapes, so why not in the charity landscape too?

We see enterprise CEOs and leadership responding to changes in technology, working, infrastructure, operation, glocalisation (not a spelling mistake), consumer need for higher value and worth and much else, as we live through what many are calling the fourth industrial revolution (the third only happened a few years ago!).

Many private sector organisations are completely re-imagining the business and market that they are in (Siemens, P&G, John Deere, EY, Deloittes and Cisco to name a few). Some are venturing into "alternative capitalism" (a threat to charities in itself) as a way of activating a higher societal purpose. Some are forming previously unlikely new strategic alliances and collaborations; and cross fertilising knowledge, innovation, propositions and whole market sectors.

In the public and governmental sectors we see a radical re-imagining of what governments, governance, communities (global and local), urban and rural custodianship, economics, even society as a whole, could and should mean to people. Especially as their values, needs and approaches to "sense of place", empowerment, fulfilment and contentment change. The concept of "citizenship" is emerging as the driving link between the mechanisms of government in all its forms and the radically changing requirements of the individual.

Questioning, challenging and redefining

In short, questioning, challenging and redefining are becoming the prevailing behaviours in many spheres of society and in more immediate, profound, inclusive, connected and accessible ways than ever before. The fundamental re-imagining of charity and everything that spins out from it, considering the same profoundly important contexts as referenced above, should happen and happen now.

Organisations (and people) only fear two things – change and the way things are. Some desperately cling on to traditional, "proven" methodologies in the hope that the status quo will be re-established. Some see profound, responsible change as an opportunity to remove traditional meanings, strategies and operation – and they celebrate this. Have a guess who the emerging winners and losers will be?

The reality is that whilst the charity sector still has a high level of support, this is diminishing fast as the public’s understanding of charity changes. Our resistance to charity fundraising increases and the milk of human kindness begins to run out as the charity market (if I can call it that) overheats, becomes overcrowded and is transparently more competitive and "commercial".

We used to feel good about giving to a charity. Now we feel bad about all the charities which we haven’t given to. Our self defence mechanism is to remove the issue from our consciousness and look elsewhere for our feel good factor.

Charities have not changed enough

The simple truth, to misquote a leading enterprise CEO, is that "the world has changed, markets have changed, people have changed but [charities] have not changed anywhere near enough". But there is a big watch out here. According to McKinsey, “77% of organisational redesigns fail” - because of chronic failings in leadership, culture, communication and tension between the latent need to change - whilst keeping things broadly the same.

Failure to implement right minded change strategies not only undermines the initiative itself but also future advocacy for and receptiveness to change.

Currently, the way that charities market themselves, in fact, the very fact that they market themselves at all, is perpetuating the problem. Whilst on the surface, charity marketing and fundraising activity is the big topic, the reality is that, like dominoes falling, public disaffection in this area creates a wider public questioning in other areas of conduct and operation. Once something is front of mind, it risks creating whole new areas of previously hidden concern, challenge and resistance.

In the public's mind, charities are in a highly competitive marketplace, fighting for our money and then potentially misusing that money to fuel their "corporate" machine. They have become indistinguishable from businesses – particularly those businesses that are claiming a higher, more worthy position and value in people's minds.

In parallel with this broad view is the idea that charities are very much behind the change curve and are still run by trustees and committees, with the resulting bureaucracy that prevents innovative forward motion, change and relevance. The cynical public sees charity marketing as shiny gloss varnish daubed over old, cracked paint and after a while, they don’t see the message compelling them to actively support a specific need. They see a corporate logo, marketing position and business sell. And this creates resistance or apathy.

Gap between marketing and reality

So a disconnect emerges. Compelling and highly emotive marketing, delivered through required digital channels, just doesn’t square with the perception of a traditional and creaky charity governance, leadership and operation. A gap is created between marketing and perceived reality and that gap is filled with loss of confidence and potential distrust.

If the public starts seeing charities as businesses they will start to associate charity behaviour with business behaviour and potentially question the conduct, honesty and even ethics of a charity in the same way as they do business.

So the charity sector most certainly needs to systemically and strategically change but change must be inspired by redefining the entire meaning behind the word charity and everything that this entails. And then defining the right collective culture and collaboration between policy makers, trustees, leadership, charity workers (voluntary and paid), communities, donors (lose that word now), beneficiaries and the wider public (citizens) that will ensure change and future understanding are effected responsibly, sustainably and well.

To not address these fundamentals would mean a continued slow decline in public interest and, worse still, a reduction of charities and all that they mean in the public and corporate consciousness – they become a thing of the past that has been usurped by other influences.

Better sector and individual definitions

From this re-imagined sector definition, narrative and new contextual landscape, the charities within it would be better able to define their own unique, change, governance, conduct and communication strategies whilst collectively and consistently reinforcing a common view of the place that charity has in society.

After all, people understand the broad distinction between different charitable causes and cause clusters, an individual charity’s mission and focus etc. These things are not strategic issues or under public scrutiny. But the sector, its conduct, its place and purpose in future society and the overall understanding of what charity means are. The cheap analogy is of a glorious looking house built on foundations of shifting sand.

In simple terms, charity' needs a new vision, purpose and narrative; a new rallying cry and credo for existing; a new value. Without this, there is no right context for defining necessary fundamental change in policy, governance, leadership, strategy, culture and conduct let alone the fundamentals of creating understanding, belief, adoption, loyalty and advocacy with… everyone.

Without these imperatives, individual charities will carry on throwing money at branding (rather than brand strategy – it’s an important strategic distinction), fundraising and marketing aimed at audiences that the sector is losing the advocacy of fast.

Some initiatives (the Understanding Charities Group should take a huge bow) are addressing some of the key issues discussed here. There are many highly innovative emerging ideas about some of the specifics of charity operation (fundraising, donor experience, the role of trustees etc.).

There is a recognition in some quarters of the need for systemic change in the charity sector overall. However, few are addressing the elephant in the room, which is whether charity has lost its meaning and if so, what its vital and profound place should be in the future.

I for one believe that since the dawn of time, people have given support and help to those in their communities and societies in order to contribute to the development of society and the individuals, including themselves, within it. In this sense, charity is as old as society itself. Charity was, is and always will be vitally central to society and its positive evolution.

Charity has to evolve

As we move through profound changes in society and the ways in which individuals evolve with it, morally, practically and emotively, we need charity to evolve too and to demonstrate, simply, the many virtues that society gains from charity.

As Darwin, who knew a thing or two about evolution, said: “It is not the strongest of the species that will survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones who are most responsive to change."


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