The brand of charities: the paradox of the pandemic

Triangle against orange and red background

The brand of charities: the paradox of the pandemic

The pandemic has exposed more clearly than ever the paradox of the work of charities vs their public image. Charities continue to do fantastic work, yet so much is overlooked. Is it time for an honest conversation about creating a better brand for the sector?
Joe Saxton


The pandemic has exposed more clearly than ever the paradox of the work of charities vs their public image.

The paradox is this. Charities are doing amazing work left, right and centre. They are saving lives. They are helping people who are falling through the cracks all across the UK. They are running foodbanks and support services. They are providing advice from medical issues to benefits, supporting people with cancer and with mental health problems, they are standing up for the homeless and the victims of domestic violence. And of course, they were doing all this before the pandemic struck.

Yet all of this goes virtually unnoticed by the media, by politicians, and the public as a whole. Airlines, performing arts, schools, universities, small businesses, and more, all get media coverage about the problems they face. I can count on the fingers of one hand, and have fingers left to spare, the number of substantive media pieces looking at the problem’s charities face or the work they do, during the pandemic. I have lost count of the times that charity folk on twitter say ‘why isn’t this getting more coverage’. That is the paradox: great work being done by an amazing sector, but all too invisible in the public eye.

One symptom of this is public trust. We have been tracking trust in public institutions for well over a decade. Our latest data from recent polling from May and September shows that many public institutions hit an all-time high in May as a result of the pandemic: the NHS, Supermarkets, small businesses, and even the government. Yet trust in charities has declined since last November. So, while charities are busting a gut to help people, losing billions in income, and in many cases struggling to survive, the public has barely noticed. In September we released data showing that the number of people who gave to charities had hit its lowest figure since our online polling began in 2010. In August our data recorded a precipitous drop in the number of over 45s volunteering.

While charities are straining every sinew to help those affected by coronavirus, their income and volunteering is being hit, and nobody seems to notice the good that they do. This matters because as a result, charities get a raw deal from the government, the public doesn’t give to charities when they could, people don’t think of charities as a source of support, the media doesn’t cover the problems of charities, and so on.

Many years ago, I started writing a number of reports and papers looking at the importance of charity brands, including a key report Polishing the Diamond. One of the issues that it talked about was the way that while charities had a brand problem, trustees and senior managers hated the term ‘brand’ and denied the problem was their brand at all.  When giving talks I used to ask those who delivered services whether they thought the way that their services were seen, by users or donors or volunteers, did justice to the services themselves. They often said the image of their services didn’t do justice to the reality.

When there is a mismatch between how a charity or a service is perceived and the reality: there is an image problem. When people think Barnardo’s still have orphanages even though the last one closed 50 years ago, or that homelessness is only about rough sleeping, or that Scouts is all about uniforms and badges, there is an image problem. Or more accurately, a brand problem.

And so it is with charities as a whole. How they are seen by several key stakeholder groups is a mismatch with reality. And that mismatch comes in various guises: that charities only do ‘nice to have’ rather than ‘vital to have’ work. That charities are or should be run only by volunteers or by CEOs paid barely more than minimum wage. That charities can raise money without spending money, and that campaigning is an aberration from charities’ real work. The list of mismatches goes on, but the conclusion is the same.

Charities as a whole have an image problem, a brand problem. And the pandemic has bought that into sharp relief.

The brand problem has existed for some time, but the pandemic has shown how it plays out in reality. The media has correspondents and columnists for the arts, education, business, travel but not a single national media outlet has a dedicated charity correspondent. So, the plight of the arts sector, small businesses, schools, university students, airlines, holiday companies and more, get coverage while charities barely get a mention. In our polling about Covid-19, charities aren’t seen as any less financially disadvantaged than small businesses, tourism and hospitality, and pubs & restaurants. Over half the public couldn’t name a charity they had seen doing something during the pandemic.

If charities have a brand problem what can be done about it? Well let’s imagine that the charity sector was a single charity, what might our recommendations be to turn around a charity’s brand. Here is advice of the kind we might give to an ordinary charity.

The brand of charities – agree there is a problem and agree the issues

No brand refresh is going to be successful without a strong and rigorous analysis of the challenges and issues that have bought the sector to this point. We recently did a brand review for a charity and one of the issues that came out was that the brand plan from ten years ago simply wasn’t as complex and nuanced as the work of the organisation now. For me, one of the issues that the pandemic has exposed is that our sector bodies aren’t particularly good at working together to come up with a big ambitious plan to tackle the issues the sector faces. But they love talking about the importance of speaking truth to power: as long as they are the truth and not the power. They hate it when anybody tries to point out that charities need to do a better job of representing themselves.

The brand of charities – get a brand manager

In the year 2000 few household name charities had a brand manager, nowadays almost all of them do. Without a brand manager or a person whose job centrally involves brand management, it’s difficult to imagine success in changing the image of charities. At the moment managing the image of the charity sector is nobody’s job, and so it’s not surprising that the brand of charities as a whole is so poor.

The brand of charities – create a steering committee

A brand manager working alone is useless without a steering committee to pull together all the different stakeholders in the sector. A good steering committee would be chaired by a senior CEO with comms experience and have all the key players onboard. Given the size and complexity of the charity sector the steering committee might need some sub-groups and ‘task and finish’ groups. At the moment there is no group that comes close to the kind of committee needed so something completely new is going to be needed.

The brand of charities - agree where you want to be

Alongside a diagnosis of the challenges and issues is an agreement about where you want to be. As that old proverb goes ‘if you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.’  Agreeing a goal is made harder because with such diverse work, types of charities and varied perspectives, a shared set of objectives may be harder. Its why the final outcome will probably need to have some big over-arching themes with some specific goals by size, by nation, by sub-sector and so on.

The brand of charities – needs investment of time, energy and resource

No brand ever changed if it was always tenth on everybody’s list of priorities. Branding of this size and importance needs a budget. It needs a steering committee who can give it some time, and not delegate it to their juniors. It also needs charities to understand that freeloading is not on: hoping to benefit from a better brand for the sector while not doing any of the basic communications tasks that will spread the key messages, or change perceptions. I don’t under-estimate the hit that charities have taken on their income and capacity to tackle this kind of project because of the pandemic. But a lot of what is needed is not money as much as consistency, clarity and co-ordinated communications over time. Charities need a mindset change – that the collective image of the charity sector matters too. They can’t just pay their subs to the sector bodies and hope that does the trick.

The brand of charities - plan for a marathon, not a sprint

Changing a brand takes time. It’s pointless to expect the image of an individual charity to change in six months: it takes years. Changing the image of the sector will probably take a decade. That seems like a long time but if the work that people like Alan Gosschalk started in 2009 and 2010 had been kept going over the last decade then we could be seeing real change by now. In our tracking work we have seen charities like Age UK, WaterAid and the Dogs Trust increase their awareness in a relatively short space of time.

Nothing about a charity sector rebrand is easy – but it could make a real difference

I would hate anyone to think that what I am proposing is simple, quick or easy. It’s the opposite of all those things. Getting charities to collaborate, proactively, strategically, over the long term has always been difficult. It’s also vitally important for every charity that the public and politicians, that the media and companies, understand just how critical charities are to helping individuals, communities, marginalised groups, the poor and the dispossessed. Without that understanding, charities aren’t doing themselves justice. They aren’t providing the bedrock on which people want to volunteer or donate because of the difference they know they will make. They aren’t encouraging people to use their services because potential users might see a charity as not being ‘for them’. 

Changing the brand of charities will potentially benefit all charities, by making their work get the recognition it deserves. It’s an exhilarating and uplifting goal to get society to recognise just how critical charities are. We shouldn’t let the challenges of improving the brand of charities deter us from making the journey. As the Chinese proverb goes: ‘even the longest journey starts with a single step’.

Submitted by Emma Whelan (not verified) on 1 Oct 2020


Joe, thank you for another energetic, honest reflection on the charity sector. Your words resonate with my experience and frustrations; I have been trying to find a way to help rebrand the brand of charities for years - starting collaborative groups up looking at 'Third Sector 3.0' and 'a new blue print for charities', speaking at events, etc. - but I've found it really difficult to get any traction (aside from the fact that I'm just one unknown brand strategist :) If there is ever a time you can see a way of helping make this happen let me know, I'd be delighted to help.

Submitted by Nikki-Dee Haddleton (not verified) on 8 Oct 2020


Joe, I totally agree. Some of the more forward thinking Voluntary Sector Councils may champion the third sector in their areas, and of course NCVO do this nationally, but it is time to really address this issue as you suggest with a concerted effort. I would be on board if you wanted to do something.

Add new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.