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If brands are expected to lead with purpose, why aren’t charities leading the charge?

21 February 2020

2019 was the year of “brand purpose”.  According to a major study by brand consultancy, Wolff Olins, the majority of people “want fundamental change, and they want businesses to drive it ‐ ahead of governments, charities and activists”.

So in 2020, if consumers are actively choosing companies that put purpose above profit, surely charities should be at the front of the queue for support? Why do so many charities struggle to harness this opportunity?

Here are just two of the biggest barriers:

Lack of a clearly defined purpose

Your mission and purpose should be one and the same. Both should clearly set out WHY you exist and your role in the world. However charity mission statements often solely describe what a charity does, which not only may need to change over time, but also is not the reason that people truly engage with any brand. As Simon Sinek says, ‘People don’t buy what you do, they buy WHY you do it’. This quote may be a bit of a cliché but in the era of brand purpose it’s never been more true. And if your mission focuses on what, not why, it’s likely that the purpose that should guide your actions is missing from your brand.  Airbnb are an example of a brand who truly live their purpose – “’To make people around the world feel like they can belong anywhere.”  For example, when the global brand came under fire for racist behaviour of its hosts, they quickly reacted and have continued to do so, changing the terms and conditions for use of the site, reiterating a public commitment to inclusion and acting swiftly when incidents are reported. It’s clear that clarity of purpose has allowed the community-led brand to react quickly, with integrity when the going gets tough.

Failing to act on emerging issues

No organisation gets it right all the time. Whether you are starting out or have been operating for decades, mistakes will be made, crises will arise and things that you’ve always done will no longer be fit for purpose. And in this digital era, issues can surface both quickly and publicly. Whilst no-one likes a brand making mistakes, what’s worse is if you fail to take immediate action when issues arise.  Unfortunately many charities are slow to act on issues and react defensively when challenged.  The NSPCC’s abrupt U-turn after announcing Munroe Bergdorf as a Childline ambassador was one example of this.  According to a statement put out by the charity, the decision was made due to safeguarding concerns (not the backlash they received from supporters and the right wing media), however the length of time it took the charity to respond with this explanation made critics question the charity’s stated commitment to trans rights and the wider LGBT+ community.

When Citizen’s Advice were challenged over training materials that reinforced racial stereotypes in August 2019, the charity were accused of being slow to respond, taking days to acknowledge any issue and remove the materials from their website, and only reacted after a highly visible Twitter campaign, calling for action.   The era of brand purpose demands greater accountability from organisations and that includes admitting when we get it wrong and taking action to rectify it.

So what can charities do differently to stand out and shine in the era of brand purpose?

Speak out on the issues that matter

Use your voice and speak outBeyond their core mission, I mean. Consumers and donors expect us to take a stand on the issues they care about. Issues like the effects of Brexit, #MeToo, climate change and sustainability weigh heavily on the minds of our audiences. If charities aren’t actively speaking up on these issues they risk being seen as irrelevant, or worse, uncaring in the face of instability and injustice. You don’t have to engage in partisan politics. You can simply share the lived experiences of your beneficiaries to highlight the day to day impact of these issues and call for change.  Stonewall are a great example of this, increasingly highlighting the impact of intersectional oppression within the LGBT+ community. If you seek to truly make a difference, this should be your top priority.

Lead by example

Charities have a responsibility beyond doing good on a specific cause. As businesses, as employers, as community members and citizens, we can all play our part in modelling best practice and leading the way (and I include our own agency in this). For example, inclusion and intersectional thinking are at the top of the agenda for forward thinking brands.   For example, Sainsburys have recently stepped up their public commitment to diversity in store, through their advertising and internally. This was seen in their high profile Black History month activity last October.  So why, is #CharitySoWhite? And why are more organisations not actively addressing this? If we are truly to lead with purpose, we need to build inclusive and diverse organisations that reflect our changing society and the communities we serve.

How to live the brand

In the era of brand purpose, you need to live your brand. You can’t do that without a clear definition of what that means. Your brand should clearly set out  your purpose, vision, personality and values:

  • Your purpose will help people understand why you exist and how they can help you play your unique role in the world.
  • Your vision will show the world what the future could look like.
  • Your values will help you establish the non-negotiable principles that allow you to lead by example beyond your cause.
  • And in a noisy world, where brands compete for attention, your brand personality will help you stand out.

Need an example? We are clear on what this means for Brand by Me.

A brilliant example of a charity leading with purpose, sticking to its values and demonstrating it’s personality, was RNLI’s response to the Daily Mail backlash over the charity’s funding of overseas projects last year.  The charity stood firm in the eye of the media storm – reiterating its purpose and showing the heroism we expect from the lifesaving charity.  And its reward for doing so? An increase in donations and support from new audiences and first time donors.

So in 2020, how do we get our charity branding mojo back? By practicing what we preach, looking outside of the sector and actively listening to and acting on society’s concerns. As I’ve said here before, it’s not enough to do good work, if we’re failing to live our values and represent the society we seek to serve.  Let’s lead with purpose and show the world why we exist!

Collette will also be chairing a panel at our communicating with purpose: audience-centred engagement strategies for charities conference.

Photo: Michael Heuser on Unsplash

Photo: Rob Sarmiento on Unsplash

Collette Philip

founder, Brand by Me

Collette Philip is MD and founder of Brand by Me, a brand meets strategy consultancy that helps ambitious organisations build credible brands that drive positive change. Find out more at