As a student I worked as a street fundraiser. I was assigned a new charity to collect for each week, but it was when I was collecting for RNLI that something became apparent to me. At the time they were newly engaged in a partnership with CIPRB in Bangladesh to teach children to swim; the leading cause of mortality for children under the age of five was drowning. As I engaged with members of the public, I noticed that one element of the story won their support more than any other. As soon as I mentioned the massive impact that these workshops had already achieved – child drownings had been reduced by 80% by 2019 – people were on board to lend their support to the cause, and be a part of this wildly successful campaign.
We can think about brand as the elements of an organisation that entrench themselves in our minds, whether that’s as superficial as logos and colour palettes, or as nuanced as shared values. But the charity sector is very different from the commercial sector in that our branding often can’t be based on tangible benefits like value-for-money or product quality. Our sector relies on trust, which in part means that charities need to build a reputation for success. People donated more freely to RNLI when I mentioned their success because it confirmed that donations were already being spent effectively. As Henry Ford said: "You can't build a reputation on what you are going to do".
People are generally shrewd about what they put their money towards. Our research with the public has shown that while most people have trust in the charity sector (62% of the public), the biggest concern that people have when donating is that the money won’t be spent effectively (46% of the public). How can you combat this concern? The solution is to share your success stories and case studies, real examples of the impact that your organisation has had. This is where good storytelling is a must, and our favourite stories are effective when they’re transformative and human.
If you have a success story like CIPRB in Bangladesh, it’s easy to show that the campaign was transformative. The statistics show that a huge improvement was implemented, massively reducing the scale of the issue. But it’s also easy to picture the issue, imagine how these workshops were implemented, and understand who benefitted. This makes for evocative storytelling. A recent example of a transformative success story on a smaller scale comes from Barnardo’s ETS North service, which has helped at-risk young people move onto positive destinations such as work, apprenticeships or further educations. Their storytelling works because it explores not only how they achieve their mission through education and fighting food insecurity, but also their success rate, having seen 90% of their 16 - 18 cohort find a placement.
Helping your supporters to understand your mission and success rate is vital, but storytelling requires a human element as well. It can be effective to put a face to your cause and use the real stories of your beneficiaries to show how you impact real lives. The public are driven to charities when they encounter specific and compelling needs, and this is where you can’t afford to be abstract. Samaritans’ Real People, Real Stories campaign works well in this regard. Although its primary aim is to reduce stigma by sharing the stories of those who the charity has helped, it also serves to humanise the problem of depression and suicide and through this creates a point of connection with potential supporters.
Charities must balance their messaging to include not only the issues and needs they seek to tackle, but also to meet the public’s expectations that their donations will make a real difference. Consider whether your charity could do with putting more emphasis on what you’ve already accomplished – and build your brand’s reputation for success.