Published: 9 April 2010

Using agencies to make an impact

Donna Tipping argues the case for an agency perspective on your communications 

In these belt-tightening times, you may instinctively feel that the last thing the cash-strapped third sector should be doing is spending money on agencies.

However, charities’ judicious use of the extra resources, expertise and contacts that an agency can bring to a project can provide excellent value for money. These tips for charities working with agencies are gained from Forster’s experience as a social change communications consultancy.

Good brief, Charlie Brown

You may choose to approach a couple of agencies with your brief, or you may be responding to a speculative approach. Either way, when you start working with your appointed agency, provide clear, concise information; it may take a few hours of your time, but should help avoid any misunderstanding in the long term. It will also ensure that the time you’re paying for is spent doing the job you’ve asked them to do, not hunting down information that you already have. You can also ask the agency to produce a project plan, which should keep both parties on the same page.

Get the know-how for your big idea

The third sector is known for its creativity. Agencies can bring specialist expertise that make ideas spring to life – such as the National Trust’s Food Glorious Food campaign, whose website helped children understand how food grows through use of a ‘plantagotchi’ that grew in real time along with the vegetables in their offline gardens. If you’re attending the CharityComms Fit For the Future conference on 28 April, ask The National Trust’s speakers about other methods through which they found fresh ways to inspire supporters and visitors.

Strength in numbers

If you’ve got hundreds of grass-roots supporters, use them. Bike Week is a nationwide celebration of cycling with thousands of events run nationwide. The week has been encouraging people to try out cycling for over 50 years. It is led by a coalition of cycling organisations including Sustrans, CTC, Cycling England, Cycling Scotland and Cycle Campaign Network. For the past two years, Bike Week has aimed to reach new audiences and increase the number of events organised. In 2009, Forster ran a national campaign and developed six pilot media towns to maximise the impact of existing grass roots activity.

A range of creative hooks and support from high profile celebrities – including Vivienne Westwood, Adrian Chiles, Paul Smith, Wayne Hemingway and Giles Deacon – generated 163 million opportunities to see the campaign in 1,751 media articles. The return on Bike Week’s investment was £18 for every £1 spent.

Agencies can also provide a neutral space for coalitions working on controversial or resource intensive issues. When branding a mental health consortium, the name Time to Change was selected because of its popularity across the diverse target audience of mental health service users, families and professionals. Following the branding, the campaign has gone from strength to strength, including 3,500 visual pledges of support and a real shift in public attitudes to mental health, according to the latest ONS survey which recorded a rise in the number of people who agreed with key attitudinal statements promoted by the campaign.

Flex your media muscles

If you’re one of the oldest women’s organisations in the world, your voice will be respected – but are the beneficiaries you represent? YWCA’s RESPECT Young Mums campaign took on a serious challenge: the widespread discrimination and prejudice against teenage mums. The campaign achieved 100% positive media and reached 50% all UK adults, 57% of professionals and 68% of opinion formers. The result for disadvantaged young mums was a demonstrable shift in the parameters of debate, policy and service delivery, and YWCA’s reputation as an influential campaigning charity was updated.

Compare the meerkat

Finally, don’t forget that most agencies offer charity rates – and if the proposal on your desk says that the agency are “prepared to revise” the budget, don’t be afraid to haggle.


Donna Tipping, Deputy director marketing and brand, Stroke Association