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Who Cares? Audience-centred engagement – a question of trust

6 November 2020

As charities we’ve lost our distinctive space, we’ve been battered by some of the wild currents affecting trust and popular opinion. 

Trust in all kinds of institutions has been declining for years, and non-profits have not been spared, perhaps feeling the consequences more sharply than other sectors because they have the furthest to fall. NGOs are now trusted by a minority (47%), with the same number trusting business, and the private sector is now seen as almost twice as likely as charities to find solutions to world poverty.

Meanwhile, through years of complacency, and perhaps feeling insulated by our moral rightness, we have allowed ourselves to become vulnerable to media attacks. That’s bad news for charities, and in particular for charity communicators. From CEO salaries to fundraising practices, the tenor of the coverage is always the same: a demand for impossibly high standards at impossibly low costs.  

Of course, we should always strive to do better, be open, and give reassurances – and above all, we need to get better at welcoming scrutiny. We also know we need to reform ourselves, to become more diverse, more representative of
our beneficiaries, and improve safeguarding. But whether the criticisms we face are fair or not is, in one small sense, irrelevant – because our fiercest detractors don’t much care either way. 

Other challenges are coming thick and fast. Over the past five or so years public engagement has become constrained by new regulation, including the Lobbying Act in 2014 and GDPR in 2018. The first curtails our ability to influence policy during elections, making it difficult to build political capital around our causes, and the second, which puts audiences more in control of their data (a good thing surely), produced unintended consequences that cut us off from much of our supporter base. The actions of players such as Cambridge Analytica, and opaque practices of the social media giants, have unsurprisingly affected how people feel about the capture and use of their data. So don’t be surprised if further data regulations come along, as the law catches up with the public mood. 

The political landscape has changed too, in the UK and elsewhere. A rise in populism and the polarisation of politics has given disproportionate influence to the extremes. So now, more than ever, when our causes are seen to be politically aligned they are too easily dismissed. For example, while public support for universal human rights is growing, in Westminster we’ve witnessed a simultaneous decline in mainstream political support for the Human Rights Act, as it’s become associated with an exclusively left-wing agenda. 

Meanwhile, the business models of the Internet giants, resulting in the rise of filter bubbles, clickbait and fake news, make it hard for charities to reach people beyond their immediate circle and even harder to be believed. 

To recap…

Charities can no longer rely on their old contract with the public, with new generations looking for new ways to express their values and a raft of commercial actors entering the ‘cause’ space. In turn that’s left us exposed to disruptive forces, from a loss in public trust to a more constraining regulatory system, with fewer political or other allies motivated to safeguard the sector’s future. 

And how have charities responded? In the face of such disruption you might expect any sector to reinvent itself, but on the whole we’ve seen only incremental changes in how charities do business or in how they communicate and engage. 

Some are trying to forge a new path – daring to ask, ‘What should a 2020s charity look like, and what is its role?’ But far too many have battened down the hatches.

Faced with public criticism, charities have struggled to get off the back foot. Efforts to co- ordinate a sector-wide response have too often settled on the lowest common denominator: containment. Kill the story. Meanwhile, many of the bigger charities have been too preoccupied with their own bottom line, and too bonded to their old rivalries, to speak and act collectively in the interests of the group and ultimately in the interests of the people they serve. 

This response paints a picture of a sector out of touch with mainstream opinion, fingers in our ears, shouting: ‘Leave us alone, we’re the good guys!’ The problem is that since we lost the monopoly on good, that line will no longer wash. 

Act together or alone – but act. We need a proactive response, not just a defence. 

This doesn’t mean giving painstakingly negotiated statements to the broadsheet press about what we do and our commitment to transparency. It might make us feel better, but few will read it and even fewer will care. Nor does it mean sticking a page on our websites boasting about our low admin costs. 

Instead, we have to show that the charity sector is still a fundamental part of how people, politicians and business make life better, for themselves and for others. 

It’s not enough to simply assert this; we have to show it in how we behave and engage. 

Take a look at Apple – arguably the world’s biggest brand. How often have you looked for the ‘About Us’ page on their website? Probably never. Do they put their mission statement on the home page? Of course not. Their home page promotes the latest iPhone and Watch models, the latest accessories and trade-in deals. Their central question: ‘Do you want a black one or a white one?’ is what matters, because it’s all about you, not them. 

Actually, can you imagine Apple’s home page if it were written by a UK charity? 

We’re Apple. For over 30 years we’ve been committed to bringing the best personal computing experience to all our customers. We have a vision of a world where every single person stays in touch using our products. Our developers and marketers are dedicated to striving towards our goals. But we can only do this with your help. Click here to see how you can access our products, or here to find out more about our approach to transparency and our customer promise.

A bit self-absorbed? Yes. So why do most charity websites still sound like this? 

Get on the front foot 

I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that we need a revival – a restoration of the place of charities in the public consciousness but based on the new rules of engagement. 

In an ideal world, we’d come together to redefine or reassert our relevance, and show the distinctive role charities can play today. 

After all who, if not charities and wider civil society, can truly represent the interests of the people or the planet we exist to serve, unsullied by political or commercial interests? Who else will stand up for the vulnerable and marginalised? And who else can help them attain power? 

We would show, not tell, that the reason business wants to emulate the way we do good is because we’re so, well, good at it. 

We’d show how we have a unique role in pushing boundaries, trying new things, building issues, holding government and business to account, and making life better, both for our beneficiaries and our supporters. We’d show we are an integral part of a functioning system, not just a safety net for when the system fails. 

One of the first steps towards achieving this is to get much closer to our audiences – both those we serve and those that support us. We need to listen to what they want, understand how they’ve changed, and keep going until we can say, with confidence and authenticity, that everything we do is aligned to their interests. 

I think this will happen, and in fact it is already starting to … kind of. The past few years have finally seen the principles of audience-centred strategy take hold, and where this was once a minority sport in the sector, it seems most charities now are trying to think differently about their place in the world – and becoming more responsive to it. Because they’ve understood that the charities that listen will be the ones that thrive. 

A few have developed audience-centred team structures and planning processes, in an effort to do away with the old siloed structures – and with them the tiresome push-and-pull rivalries between communicators, fundraisers and campaigners. Some of our digital transformation advocates are helping push these changes along, while reminding us that the new world demands a new business model, not just a new customer database and a social media manager. I don’t want to get too hung up on structure and process, because mindset and culture matter just as much, but these changes in how charities organise themselves must be an important step on this journey. 

In the meantime, there’s a lot you can do individually to re-think how your organisation engages the outside world. So my challenge to you, if you agree with at least parts of what I’ve said in this introduction, is to keep these questions top of mind when you develop your external engagement strategy. Think about creating a new kind of relationship with your audiences, based on reciprocity, and offer them rewarding experiences and the confidence that they’re making a difference. I’ll return to some of these themes throughout the book. 

So get back to basics again

The principles of good engagement strategy have not changed, except that the stakes are much higher now.

This book is built on those principles. Make a deliberate decision about why you need to engage people in order to achieve your goals. Find the people who need your help, and who can help you. Then work out how to get their attention and give them rewarding experiences that meet their needs – and yours. 

If you put your audiences at the heart of your external engagement strategy, you’ll get to the good place. You’ll be able to recognise and respond to the opportunities coming your way, and in doing so win support for your cause, change minds,
and help more people. And to top it all, you’ll be contributing to a renewed, stronger contract between charities and the public. Ultimately, of course, it will be up to you to find your own answers to the challenges I’ve given you here and to the challenges you find along the way. I wrote this book to help you do that. I hope you like it. 

This is the second part of the introduction chapter to Joe Barrell’s new book ‘Who Cares?’: Building audience-centred engagement strategies in the non-profit sector. Catch up on part one here and order your copy of the book 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.