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Finding your charity’s voice

10 November 2015

At World Vision UK, we wanted a voice that didn’t sound generic and that would help us reach more people, enabling us to work towards our aspiration of every child free from fear.

We’re proud of the way we’ve developed our brand, but until recently we felt our written and spoken language wasn’t working as well as the visual elements. Now we’ve nailed our tone of voice, giving us a consistent and distinctive way of communicating. Here’s what we learned along the way.

1. Bring in an expert 

Like many charities, we have a wide range of audiences, from child sponsors and church leaders to civil servants. Finding a voice that would speak effectively to all made this a complex brand project. Having realised we needed some expert help, we ran a tender process and selected Self Communications.

It really helped having Sarah Fitzgerald on board: her experience and exceptional knowledge of communications helped us see where our voice was strongest and at its best. She was also able to identify those elements of a voice that would work across all parts of the organisation, and with the widest range of audiences. 

2. Let your charity’s values guide you

We wanted a unified voice that would work in everything from a supporter newsletter written by one of our marketers, to a technical report for the Department for International Development (DFID) drafted by a policy professional. To start the process, Sarah helped us uncover the messages about World Vision UK that were most important to all our audiences. We did this through workshops and meetings with a cross-section of staff, as well as reviewing our existing audience strategies, and auditing existing communications, to see what worked best.

For many charities it can feel like there’s little held in common between different parts of the organisation, especially when various teams want to communicate in different ways with their own specific audiences. Starting with our charity’s values helped us reveal the principles that are shared across the organisation and made a great starting point for finding our voice. 

3. Listen and learn from other voices 

We picked a selection of international development charities similar to us, some of which have a faith basis or a focus on children, and analysed their communications. We looked at the language and tone they employed, and how consistently and well they did this. It was interesting to see that while a couple of these charities had clearly thought about tone of voice and were managing this well, many were not. Not only did this mean we had an opportunity to gain an advantage by creating a strong and consistent voice, it also helped us understand how we could do this in a way that set us apart from other similar charities.

4. Make every bit of language count

Having developed our five tone of voice principles, we worked with Sarah to develop guidance on letting them shine through in all our written and spoken communications. 

This wasn’t just about expressing elements of a personality like ‘friendly’ and ‘upbeat’. We discovered ways to use language to convey deeper truths about World Vision UK, like our long-term commitment to communities, and our global coverage. This went way beyond choosing content or case studies: we’ve developed guidance on everything from sentence length to word sounds. 

5. Let people try it out

Once we’d agreed our five tone of voice principles and tried them out for ourselves, Sarah helped us develop training and guidance materials, and deliver our first set of staff workshops. We now provide this training ourselves, and to date more than 55 individuals have been introduced to the tone of voice principles and practised applying them.

We want people to experiment and try out the principles for themselves in a way that feels safe for them. We’re here to advise and support, and as we roll out the training further, we hope colleagues who work closely together will support each other. As we’re still rolling it out, we’ve found that reading copy to a colleague can be the best way to hear where the World Vision UK voice is coming across strongly, and where it isn’t.

It’s still early days, but we can already see where our new tone of voice is becoming embedded in how we communicate.

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Nicola Piggott

interim brand, content and creative manager, World Vision UK

Nicola joined World Vision UK in January 2012 over which time she has worked across editorial & design, product innovation and experiential marketing. She currently heads up the brand, content & creative team. Before moving into the third sector, Nicola worked in publishing and was group editor for a number of leading journals in the food marketing & manufacturing industry.