Published: 11 February 2015

Charities need social equity to stand out in a digital world

In today’s world the consumer has more choice than ever before. This is as true of charity as it is of holiday destinations or groceries. We can as easily give our money to a school in Ethiopia, or a medical program in India, as we can a cancer charity in the UK.

This represents both a challenge and an opportunity to charities.

The challenge: more choice makes it harder to engage people to take a single action, let alone engage repeatedly. With more choice people are likely to be less loyal, reacting to the emotional imagery in the latest TV campaign or global event.

The opportunity:  the same technology providing us with more choice can be used to engage people more deeply. Newer charities such as Movember or Charity Water have shown how rewarding this opportunity can be. Creating something of value, a way to be cool or a way to celebrate my birthday respectively, the benefit is long-term relationships lasting for years.

Exploiting this opportunity isn’t about being great at social or having some super cool brand, although that helps. It’s about moving beyond the “please give us x so we can do y” approach, and thinking about how charities are useful to their supporters and what they offer, beyond the feeling of doing something good.

This shift from advertising that informs to marketing that helps, is something which typifies many of the best brands in the world. It’s easy to demonstrate this through new brands like Airbnb or Uber, but perhaps it is more useful to look at how Nike has moved from marketing footwear to helping people get fitter or how the National Trust has created uniting experiences for families, rather than just preserving the nation’s heritage.

In focusing more on a utility, these brands have successfully transcended the simple ‘sales/customer’ model which requires regular ‘high cost’ advertising, to elicit repeat behaviour and build ongoing, positive relationship with their followers. Like all brands, charities will benefit by discovering their utility. Essentially, it’s thinking about what you already do that offers value beyond your obvious cause or beneficiaries.

Prostate Cancer UK, for example, has taken this approach with a high-profile new campaign based around keeping friendships alive. Prostate cancer is the biggest cancer among men in the UK, and it wants to become the charity of choice for all men. Yet, in reality men are unlikely to be directly affected by prostate cancer until they are over 45. So just talking about the injustices (which there are plenty) around prostate cancer is not relevant to all men.

However, there’s a wider utility at play here: friendship. As men get older they cherish their friends but actually see them less. The opportunity for Prostate Cancer UK is to ‘own’ the fact  the charity helps you see your friends more – they facilitate male friendship by helping to keep men alive, and they organise fundraising events where men come together. This lifestyle purpose and utility has taken the charity beyond spreading awareness and raising funds. It’s moved the Prostate Cancer UK proposition beyond a simple emotional call and response, and created a movement of men, way beyond those directly effected by the disease.

This is an approach all charities can take: finding the unique thing you have to offer, and making it something of value to everyone.


Jonathan Simmons, chief experience officer, Zone

Jonathan Simmons is chief experience officer of digital agency Zone. He oversees the agency's development and offering for leading brands and charities such as Tesco, Coca-Cola GB, Prostate Cancer UK, Nike Foundation and Save the Children.