Published: 17 March 2017

The future trends worth watching

Earlier this year, CharityComms and Eden Stanley published Whatever Next? Public Engagement in 2022, a report exploring the key trends shaping supporters, the media, and the wider world. It considers the potential impact on charities and how we can respond. 

Based on our discussions with people at the leading edge of public engagement in charities and beyond, here are some of the trends that are already challenging charities to rethink their proposition.

Meaningful brands: the business of doing good

More and more commercial brands want to show they care as much about society’s interests as their own bottom line. These are ‘purpose driven brands’, like old hands John Lewis, whose core focus is ‘the happiness of all its members, through their worthwhile and satisfying employment in a successful business’, or Proctor & Gamble, whose ‘Like a Girl’ campaign aimed to empower more girls and women.

According to the Institute of Fundraising, corporate partnerships still hold untapped value to both commercial companies and charities. In 2015, 95% of charities viewed corporate fundraising as an area of growth, and 64% of organisations were planning to increase investment. 

But as more commercial brands pursue ‘meaning’, the distinctions between charities and business become blurred, with each claiming the ‘do good’ space. With so many players in the ‘cause’ arena, how do you communicate what makes you different and worth supporting?

As one communications director told us: 

As a sector, we are quite ripe to be disrupted. What’s driving that disruption is a change in the public’s expectations. New ways are being found to solve their problems.

Getting out of the way: a more connected world

Consumers are now used to Skyping relatives in Sydney, playing Minecraft with a stranger in Bangalore, or chatting on Facebook with someone they once met on a trek in the Andes. Annual global internet traffic exceeded one zettabyte in 2016, and is forecast to reach 2.3 zettabytes in 2020, as we reach 4.1 billion global internet users (a zettabyte, in case you’re wondering, is about one trillion gigabytes).  

For charities who have traditionally acted as the ‘link’, mediating relationships between supporters and beneficiaries, this poses an existential challenge as well as a practical one. Far fewer of us now turn to travel agents to book our holidays, so why look to charities when it comes to doing good with our money or time? The UK alternative finance sector, which includes crowdfunding, peer-to-peer lending and other forms of investment outside of traditional loans and stocks, grew 84% in 2015 and is now worth £3.2 billion. 

Despite this growth, crowdfunding still makes up less than 0.5% of giving in the UK. Engaging supporters in 2022 means embracing more of these new modes of support. According to NCVO and Nesta, 43% of charities, community groups and social entrepreneurs are now looking at crowdfunding as an income source.

Rebuilding trust: telling a better story about charity

Public trust and confidence in charities is fragile. Between 2014 and 2016, according to Charity Commission research, 33% of the public said their trust and confidence in charities had decreased, though almost two thirds (61%) said it had stayed the same. We’re all aware of the media stories that have contributed to this crisis in trust, from regulator fines confirming many people’s disdain for public fundraising practices, to disquiet about CEOs on six-figure salaries. This has been compounded by a more general decline in trust in institutions.

Qualitative research in 2016 by the Understanding Charities Group showed the trust issue is ‘real and cannot be ignored’. Vicky Browning, chief executive of ACEVO, said: 

There was a sense of nostalgia for ‘the good old days’, when charity was felt to be simpler, more local and more fun. Crucially, too, charity supporters are more frustrated than non-supporters, and more likely to be critical.

Taking risks: safe routes to innovation

The view among senior communicators we spoke to is that much of our sector still lacks appetite for innovation, or the culture to achieve it. At a time when public funding for charities is shrinking, and consumer confidence fragile, short-term fundraising targets have become the focus for many boards and executive teams. Most lack the cash for longer-term investments in new activities, which may not pay back for years, or succeed at all. So many hang on to proven methods, and live with their diminishing returns.

And yet, as we’ve seen with other sectors, failure to innovate makes you vulnerable to challenge – and not just from other charities. 

The future is foggy

Who can say with certainty what the future will bring?

We are already looking back at 2016 as a year of seismic change and significance: a year that made us see the world differently, when the impact of big changes hit home, from globalisation to the rise of social media.

MBA students and business school professors use the acronym ‘VUCA’ to describe how the world is changing. It’s an ugly word – try it: there’s really no nice way to pronounce it – but it’s hard to deny that our world has become volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. 

That doesn’t mean we should give up trying to make sense of it – after all, a game of chess has almost infinite outcomes, but we still open the game with our best moves. It means understanding and predicting trends in supporter behaviour, content and media. 

Fortunately, there are some trends that we think will persist – and that you should not ignore.

This article is an extract from Whatever Next? Public Engagement in 2022 by Sarah Fitzgerald. Download the report for free

Sarah Fitzgerald, director, Self Communications

Sarah Fitzgerald is director of Self Communications, working with charities and not-for-profits to help their brands live through language. She has more than a decade of senior communications experience in the third sector.