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Finding our voice: how a small charity found the confidence to call for change

31 May 2022

Finding your voice as a not for profit is incredibly important, but also undoubtedly challenging work. At IVAR (the Institute for Voluntary Action Research), our mission is to strengthen the UK voluntary sector through action research. There was a growing feeling that we should be using our voice more to speak out about the entrenched issues that come up time and again. Things like short-term funding and disproportionate grant reporting that draw charities’ time away from the communities they serve. There was also an ambition to put the people we work with – people from charities, foundations and public agencies – at the heart of our communications.

But in trying to find our voice, it soon became clear that our senior staff and trustees had differing views about what ‘using our voice’ meant – when, how, and how often. From a comms point of view, wanting to respond to issues in the sector suggested a sense of immediacy; while for researchers a six-month project felt like a fast turnaround. Here’s how we matched these two competing priorities and got to the point where we are able to effectively communicate on the immediate issues that matter while drawing on longer-term research…

Calling for help!

Step one was to bring in some outside help to understand and expose the tensions we faced as an organisation, so that we could work through them together. I found a freelancer with experience in communicating research, using the CharityComms directory – Sarah Nelson – who interviewed senior staff. I then turned her report into a set of ‘provocations’, which I took to a meeting with all staff and trustees – to push people’s thinking and interrogate what we were trying to achieve.

Some examples of the ‘provocations’ used are:

  • Digital: The reality is that in 2020 and beyond many individuals are frequenting digital and social media platforms in their search for information, yet IVAR lacks personality, voice and reach on these.
  • Clear, confident messaging: Our intended audiences are busy and do not always have time to wade through ‘maybes’ and ‘possibly think abouts’. Phrases such as ‘X should consider doing Y’ help bring clarity.

Using these provocations as a talking point enabled us to build consensus for when and how to speak out: with confidence, on issues where there is an evidence base supported by current experience. This is what applying for funding feels like is an example of our new style; profiling the experience of charities alongside a narrative from IVAR about how funders can respond.

Takeaways: As a small organisation with 12 staff in total, it’s really important that everyone feels ownership over our communications. Having someone external – and independent – who shed light on areas of tension made a massive difference; it neutralised the conversation and enabled us to talk about areas of disagreement in an open, relaxed and forward-looking way.

Bringing personality to our digital channels

The next challenge was to bring our work to life online – as our website was wordy and difficult to navigate, despite our best efforts to translate research reports into quick and digestible insights. Again, we started by bringing in external support – as a small comms team we are all-rounders, so it’s invaluable to draw in specialist expertise at key points. This time, it was in the form of Add10, a brand agency, who facilitated a workshop for our whole staff team to define our values (curious, grounded, human and hopeful), and to explore what we wanted from our brand.

Two important points emerged. The first was a desire to introduce photography, profiling the communities that our work supports. We asked charities who had participated in research with us to share photos of their work for use in our comms, and in some cases captured photos of their work ourselves. The challenge for our designers, Involved, was then to create a brand concept which would showcase photos of varying qualities and formats – which they did through the use of shapes taken from the blank space around our logo.

Image of IVAR logo and branding

The second was to use fewer words, particularly on our website. Agreeing which words to use, we knew, would be a fierce negotiation – as we needed to have absolute clarity about our key messages. However, as a team, IVAR had a strong starting point – having agreed on how we wanted to use our voice, defined our values, and agreed on an organisational strategy. We were able to cut down introductions to webpages, for example, from 100 words to a single 20-word sentence.

Takeaways: There was a tipping point – having early support from brand specialists was crucial, but ultimately we were the experts in how to apply their thinking to our work. Sharing progress at key points and creating space for discussion helped to maintain buy-in from staff. It was also essential to have the Director’s support – he had strong views about some things, like tone, but was completely behind the direction and concept; which meant we could negotiate and find our way through.

Our first comms campaign

IVAR has now combined our evolved brand with our desire to use our voice to speak out – and profile the voices of others – to develop our first comms campaign. In responding to the first Covid-19 lockdown, funder practices changed overnight: no reporting requirements, project grants became unrestricted, and money got through to charities more quickly. We want grantmakers to continue to make and manage grants in a way that reflects their confidence in the organisations they fund, and that is at the heart of our first comms campaign #HowYouFundMatters.

The #HowYouFundMatters campaign promotes our newly launched Funding Experience Survey, which asks about what matters most to charities when it comes to funding. This is so we can reduce the wasted time, effort and stress of fundraising and funding relationships. It’s an opportunity for funders to share how they will use the findings to improve and adapt their practice and charities to share the importance of Open and Trusting Grant-making.

The campaign follows on from a call we made in February 2021, for funders to sign up to eight commitments for Open and Trusting Grant-making, which resulted in us building an active community of over 100 funders. And the survey results will influence how over £800 million of UK grants are made and managed. (Please do fill it in! It’s open until the 10th June and takes 10 minutes).

In this campaign, we have realised our ambition to use our voice, and to profile the voices of those we work with – funders and charities alike. In many ways, this is the culmination of a journey that we’ve been on for several years – before I even started at IVAR. But I like to look at it as a new beginning. We have generated buy-in, created the infrastructure and built a team that is equipped to play a leading role in reforming UK grant-making.

Takeaways: Experimentation is key! Comms is not a science, and we are big believers in iteration. Try something, review how it went, learn, and try again.

Banner Image: Yaroslav Shuraev on Pexels

Emily Dyson

deputy director, IVAR

Emily leads on communications, strategy and operations for the Institute for Voluntary Action Research. Previously, Emily held the evidence and strategy brief for #iwill, a communications campaign aiming to involve more young people in social action. She also engaged a wide range of audiences while rotating between Civil Service departments, particularly as briefing coordinator to Nick Clegg (then deputy Prime Minister) in the run-up to the 2015 general election.