The rules of the charity game are changing

Photo by  Marc Shoul

Photo by Marc Shoul

In 2010, Unilever launched their Sustainable Living Plan, stating their aim to double the size of their business whilst halving its environmental footprint in ten years. In 2014, Red Bull started the Amaphiko Academy to support social entrepreneurs around the world. 2017 saw Airbnb unveil their Open Homes platform, allowing anyone to sign up and host people who need a place to stay – refugees, homeless, and evacuees affected by natural disasters. This isn’t a new development however; Airbnb has been offering free temporary housing for years.

As these examples illustrate, brands have been adding value to society for a while in their quest to appeal to millennials who prefer to buy from and work for purpose-driven companies. They’re also operating in spaces that used to be the preserve of charities, NGOs and the third sector.

And they are doing it well.

So are businesses such as footwear specialist Tom’s and ingenious cooking device Wonderbag – both are part of the like-for-like movement, where you buy a product and another is donated where it is needed more.

Then there is Britain’s blossoming social enterprise sector – businesses whose bottom line is social impact. Bread and Roses is one of Smoke’s favourites, but you can pick from around 70,000, which contribute £24 billion to the economy, employ around 1.44 million and crucially help make the world a better place.

What does this new competitive landscape mean for charitable organisations? How does the blurring of the lines between private, public and third sector, impact what supporters, donors and Joe Public, expect from charities?

One way in which the rules of the charity game have changed dramatically is a consequence of how brands engage with consumers. If big business knows one thing, that’s how to keep their customers happy or risk losing them.

Can the third sector say the same?  Sometimes it seems like charities struggle to meaningfully engage with supporters and the public. ‘Engagement’ is often limited to ‘Give us some cash, please, it’s for a good cause’ followed by ‘Thank you. Now, please give us some more’, or ‘Sign this petition.’

It’s like lunging in for a kiss on a first date without any of the flirting or romance, which makes people feel like a cheap date, and nobody wants to feel like that.

It begs the question: why do so many charities fall back on the same, outdated ways of reaching out to people when it’s clear it’s no longer working? While brands are successfully innovating and capitalising on a clear appetite from people who want to see the world change and want to help impact it in positive ways, the third sector has stuck to playing the same game. Charities need to learn to evolve, adapt and tailor their campaigns and messages in ways that are culturally relevant and interesting to their audiences.

We applied some of these tools with Ctrl.Alt.Shift, a pioneering youth activist movement that we conceived for Christian Aid 12 years ago.

Research showed us communicating effectively and engaging people boiled down to this:

If you (brand, charity, social enterprise) take a real interest in us (target audience), we’ll take a deep interest in you.

So we unpicked their lives before making a move and established how young people (18 to 25) consumed music, what social issues they were interested in, what impact they thought they could make and what they were willing to do. This enabled Ctrl.Alt.Shift to build a deep and lasting connection with socially conscious young people, something no other charities were doing at the time.

In fact Ctrl.Alt.Shift was more of a community and movement, consisting of a groundbreaking magazine and offline campaigns such as protesting at Saudi Arabia’s Embassy against the country banning entry to HIV sufferers or co-ordinating nationwide flash mobs in Tesco stores for not selling Fairtrade bananas. 

Ctrl.Alt.Shift organised a short film competition, offering funding, mentoring (director Noel Clarke) and cast (Martin Freeman) and crew for original short films on HIV and stigma, war and peace, and gender and power. We also conceived a photography competition with Vice, which saw winners mentored by professional photographers.

The mentoring element highlights how taking a real interest in a target demographic works, understanding who they are and where they are in their lives. 12 years ago, not many charities or brands were doing that. It’s an example of how give and take – or meaningful exchange – worked and continues to work very well in this competitive landscape.

We’ve also worked with the Canal & River Trust to create Waterfront, a magazine that goes out to supporters twice a year. Using cultural and strategic insights, we built an original editorial approach that differentiates the magazine from anything else out there. In each issue we seek out stories that bring the waterways to life, diving into the rich heritage of the canals and rivers of England and Wales, getting to know the communities living by various stretches of water, and sharing the tales of individuals who take to the water for a myriad of reasons. As well as being a nice addition to the coffee table, it connects donors to the work of the Trust in way that’s more engaging and entertaining than a simple pamphlet about their work.

The response? “It’s a beautiful magazine”, “I read the whole thing cover to cover”, and “it is much better than others I receive” is just some of the feedback from readers. People have also asked on social media where they can buy a copy and supporters have phoned in to make extra one-off donations after receiving theirs.

How does that compare with chucking £1 in a bucket being shaken by someone in a Scooby Doo-onesie, or signing up to a direct debit because the chugger was hot?

Photo by  Ashton Clark

Photo by Ashton Clark

Smoke believes building an emotional connection reflecting, ‘Who I am’ in a charity’s messaging, marketing, campaigns and communications, results in loyalty, increased retention and advocacy.

The intention at the heart of charity - improving lives and making a better world hasn’t changed - but how we achieve this and communicate has rapidly evolved in recent years, with digital media and the social scene driving this progression. The game has changed, so charities can’t continue to behave as if it’s business as usual.

Smoke Creatives was set up as a reaction to this shift so that charities could not only survive but adapt and thrive in the new competitive landscape. Set up by a team that brings together experience working for both brands – Sony Music, PlayStation – and charities – WaterAid, Save the Children, Plan International - we are absolutely committed to social good and enabling third sector organisations reach their goals. So if you want to make your supporters and the public feel like a million dollars rather than a cheap date, let’s talk