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Who Cares? Building audience centred engagement strategies – an introduction

3 November 2020

Nobody predicted where we’d find ourselves as a sector by the early 2020s – with a lot of the progress we helped bring about apparently at risk of unravelling. But I’m still an optimist. How about you? 

Back in 2014 I wrote a short book called Make it Matter to help non- profits create engagement strategies that work. 

The basic premise of that book still stands. Communication can be a force for change, but to have any chance of success, you have to think deeply about the audiences you need to engage, understand what they think and want, and put them at the centre of your strategy. 

This hasn’t changed, but almost everything else has. 

It’s painful to admit this, but our voice, as a sector, seems less powerful today. Any conversation about ‘charity’ will often turn to truth and trust, misuse of personal data, safeguarding failures, overpaid arrogant CEOs, or dodgy fundraising practices. Even if these narratives are distorted and overblown, trying to win our arguments from that position is, to say the least, difficult.

Charities? A problem?

In Make it Matter, I argued that strategic external engagement was essential to our impact. I now think it’s about our survival. 

Like most people working in this field, I’m an optimist, and I don’t doubt for a second that non- profits still play a necessary and irreplaceable role in the world. We’ve been at the centre of some extraordinary progress: you just need to take a look at some of the big indicators to see that our causes are gaining ground. 

But regardless of what our detractors might say – and we have many, like the venerable Lord Lucas who claimed in 2018 that charities exaggerate problems to raise money – it is almost impossible to overstate the scale of the challenges we have yet to overcome. Inequality is deepening, systemic discrimination is widespread, and progress on the environment still crawls slowly along, as if ensuring survival of our planet is just another policy question to be weighed up against the threat of economic slowdown. So we are still needed now, as much as ever, perhaps more. 

We are fortunate, then, that basic human values of benevolence and fairness still prevail. Most people want to help each other, want a decent standard of living, and want to live in a safer, fairer society – and our responsibility, as it has always been, is to help them do that. 

So what happened? 

Our place in the public consciousness has changed. Some even question whether charities still have a place in today’s society. How did we get here? 

Many of us predicted the major trends facing our sector, affecting both our supporters and the people we serve. For a long time we’ve known, for example, that new generations of supporters would have different expectations from their parents and grandparents, and that sustained de-funding would leave our public services fragile and exposed to crises – as the coronavirus pandemic has shown. But other things that have shaken our world were much harder to predict – from the waves of frenzied media attacks on charities to the rise of populism and deepening political and social divisions. 

Still, we are holding up … just. Overall giving to charities remains high, even if that’s down to fewer people giving more, perhaps mirroring wider social divides. But what about the future? Right now, a young person with the motivation and desire to change the world is more likely to set up a profit-making business than a charity. The most powerful social movements of our times, from Extinction Rebellion to #MeToo to Black Lives Matter, walked right into the space we left when we failed to renew ourselves so we’d be relevant to them. These movements happened without us – led by new generations angry about injustice, feeling disempowered and impatient for change. Why would they expect the old guard of charities and civil society organisations to fight these battles with them? 

The generation shift

There’s a strong argument that many of the issues we’re facing now have their origins in the disintegration of the old post-war, post-colonial contract between people and the charity sector. This contract needs to be renewed. 

For as long as most of us can remember, UK charities have relied on financial support from the Baby Boomers (now in their 60s and 70s) and the Silent Generation before them, who lived their formative years during post-war reconstruction. These generations were there for the establishment of the welfare state, the ‘decolonisation’ of Africa, and the rise of new civil rights movements in the 1960s and 70s. For most of them, donating to charities and causes was motivated by a sense of civic duty to rebuild and give back – something they believed you did modestly and without fuss, and without expecting too much in return. 

The generations that have followed have no such connection with the events that shaped their parents’ worldview. Generation X – now in their 40s and 50s – grew up wanting to forge their own identities. This was the generation of the punk, then the yuppie, who cast off those old ideologies and replaced them with a new idea – that the causes we align ourselves with form part of our self-expression: who we are as individuals, perhaps more than as a society. Millennials and Generation Z have continued on that path, and the market has responded. 

As a result, the old contract – to rebuild and give back – has been replaced by something more transactional, more tied up with personal identity and the expectation of reciprocal value. You give something, you get something, and you stand for something.

Commodification of causes

Of course, these social changes have often been exploited for commercial gain. As consumer brands adopt causes, we can’t always be sure whose interests they’re serving or whether they’re making any real impact. These days you’ll see causes everywhere you look – commodified and marketed – on tote bags or in schmaltzy clickbait.

In many businesses, social causes have been elevated out of corporate social responsibility teams into corporate mission statements and on to board agendas. And, of course, these initiatives are not all facile, far from it. Look at the Virgin Media WorkWithMe partnership with Scope, mobilising FTSE 100 firms to commit to more inclusive working environments for disabled people. Or take Lloyds Bank’s partnership with Mental Health UK. These are serious initiatives with the potential to achieve real impact, led by corporations with the resources to scale up quickly and reach audiences that most non-profits can only dream of. What’s more, many of these firms have realised they can catalyse social change without you – drag your feet in these partnerships and they’ll just appoint their own top-flight policy team and leave you standing. Some of them have. 

As the ‘for profit’ sector moves into this space, our consideration for others, and the planet, has become mainstreamed into our lives – in how we work and how we shop. It turns out social causes are good business. Who knew? 

Despite the obvious perils of trusting the market to deliver social change, in many ways this shift must be celebrated, and charities can take some credit for it, because it shows that some of their arguments are being won. If consumer demand is changing corporate practice, whether in their supply chains or through more inclusive employment practices, what’s not to like? If you take a long view, and compare today with, say, a generation ago, the growing mainstream consensus that we should care about the environment and promote equal rights is undeniable, even if there are mountains yet to climb. 

In the midst of these changes, however, the central proposition of many charities – what they say to the world – has changed little. Give us a tenner or the kid will suffer, or some variation on that. There are, of course, many brilliant minds among us, and some real innovations happening in some charities. Some have reached deep into the communities they serve to build services and campaigns from the ground up. Others have stepped back, giving supporters the tools to fundraise on their behalf. But let’s admit it: taken as a whole, the sector has not worked hard enough to respond to shifting public appetites or demonstrate its unique and necessary role.

Meanwhile, commercial brands have come through with more assertive, simpler propositions for how we can do good by buying stuff. The idea that when we help ourselves, we help others, or help the planet, has become one of the most successful propositions going. Contrast that with charities’ offer of personal sacrifice for a higher goal – too often based on the unconscious, false assumption that everyone is just like them: universalist, benevolent and trusting. It’s easy to see why many charities have struggled to engage new generations of supporters. 

There are countless ways for all of us to feel we’re making ethical choices, at minimal cost, while still enjoying the lifestyles we want. We can pick up a paper straw instead of a plastic one when we get our fast food fix. We can buy fair trade chocolate (and eat it) or disposable nappies where a few pennies from every pack go to families in developing countries. We can pick up other people’s rubbish while enjoying a walk on the beach. We can share photos of missing people on Facebook and sign petitions drummed up by our friends. 

For those who want to express their values and change the world, charities are no longer the only game in town. The ‘monopoly on good’ is over. 

This is the first part of the introduction chapter to Joe Barrell’s new book ‘Who Cares?: Building audience-centred engagement strategies in the non-profit sector’. Read part two here. The book is now available to buy here.

Joe Barrell

executive director, Eden Stanley

Joe Barrell founded Eden Stanley in 2011 and is the company's executive director. He’s an experienced insight-driven strategist, who has led numerous transformative projects for such charities as Amnesty International, Macmillan Cancer Support,The Children’s Society and UNESCO. He also designed and developed Eden Stanley’s data services, used by numerous UK non-profits to build audience segmentations and track their brands with audiences most relevant to them.

Joe is author of the book Make it Matter, which is widely used by non-profits to guide communications strategy (he is now working on a second edition). In his previous life he served as director of communications at Save the Children from 2005-2010, and as head of communications at Shelter before that. A lifelong campaigner for social justice, Joe currently serves on the board of trustees for the disability charity, Scope.