As nfpSynergy clients who attended our March Insights event and heard the presentation that forms the basis of this editorial will be aware, one of the themes to emerge in recent waves of our research is that while charitable giving levels in 2012 remain volatile, the picture is not bleak. Recent data from our flagship research programme, the Charity Awareness Monitor (CAM), certainly shows that financial strain and fears for the future remain key to the donor landscape, with fear of poverty in old age a concern for 54% of the public in November 2011. Yet despite this, the basic trend for giving levels remains reasonably static over time, and there has been a recent drop in the proportion of donors who expect to give less in the future. Charitable giving tends to remain firmly lodged between core utilities and luxury expenditure as a target to cut back on – at risk but by no means the first casualty of the recession.
The message, then, is that however dark the climate has looked, we’re hanging on in there as both individuals and as charity donors. Yet while charitable giving remains surprisingly resilient in the midst of economic upheaval, it is vulnerable to changing fortunes and not to be taken for granted. This makes it more important than ever to ensure clear, resilient and diverse sources of funding in order to adapt. It also means being aware that the question of whether donors put money in your fundraising envelope/bucket, or give your street-fundraiser a few minutes of their time rather than the next organisations’, becomes increasingly precarious.
Side-stepping the barriers to giving
What can you do, then, to ensure your organisation does not put in jeopardy this decision to part with harder-than-ever-earned cash? In CAM we regularly ask the public about the barriers to giving that donors feel would put them off giving to a particular charity, as well as a probing a range of other perceptions regarding expenditure, waste and the issues that would instil confidence. We consistently find that donors are most likely to be put off giving by concerns about a charity’s expenditure – ranking such worries above their concerns about specific charity activities and even about supporter treatment and fundraising methods. Primarily,people worry about too little money going to the cause itself (76%), about lack of clarity regarding how donations are spent (60%) and about too much going on staff salaries (57%)1.
Similarly, reassurance that they have made a wise choice in which charity to give to and have faith in its ability to spend money effectively are key aspects for the decision to give – and CAM data suggests that it is these broader-brushstroke sentiments of reassurance and trust which tend to matter more than being provided with the specific details and opportunities to engage. For example, while 56% felt that knowing a charity spends its money well was important to a recent decision to give, only 14% were bothered about being able to specify how a donation was used2.
In general terms, this trust can be hard to come by as the public consistently tend to suspect that too much is spent on “administration” as opposed to “the cause”. While these definitions can be nebulous, and are probed in more depth elsewhere in the research, respondents tend to imagine that double the proportion they consider acceptable (17%) is actually spent on administration (39%). And on the flip-side, they think that two-thirds of a charity’s spending ought to go on the cause – but believe that only one-third does so in fact1. Donors therefore need stronger reassurance that their hard-earned contributions are well spent - and the sense that a charity can be trusted is crucial.
However, it is equally clear that the majority of the public have high expectations for charity professionalism and efficient customer service, even despite their concerns regarding spending on administration (and make no mistake that the majority of non-frontline service jobs we ask about tend to be associated by the public with ‘admin’ rather than ‘the cause’). CAM finds that four in five people expect charities to be professional and well-organised, while 77% require charities to get their names and other details right; which are certainly reasonable demands. Yet we also find that 64% expect as good a service from charities as they receive from a public or private service and, although 50% don’t mind a charity being ‘a bit amateurish in how they treat donors’ so long as it saves money, a full two-thirds still expect charities to respond ‘quickly and efficiently’ to any enquiry they might have2.
The professional-amateur dilemma
None of these are unreasonable requests - far from it. However they do point to a problematic gap between the professionalised service donors increasingly expect from charities – and their reluctance to see voluntary organisations spend on it. It is not just the apparent contradiction that the need to cultivate affinity and a broader sense of emotional trust tends to exceed donor demands to hone the specific methods and depth of engagement on offer; we also see a seeming conflict between public demands for professionalism from the voluntary sector and the reluctance to see money spent on this process.
When asked which of a range of prompted measures might help them feel more confident that their donation is being spent well, 55% wanted to know that no one at the charity travels first class, while 43% wanted to know no one got a bonus. However, more trickily, almost half (46%) wanted to know that no one at the organisation earned more than £50,000. Perhaps even more worryingly, 42% would feel reassured to know that the charity was mostly run by volunteers, which may be at the crux of the dilemma3. For the modern, medium-to-high income charity is as complex and sophisticated a beast as any private company, heading up large budgets and with an equal need to attract employee talent to key roles; yet the popular perception of a charity is in many ways still that of a grass-roots community organisation, run from a church hall and motivated from a pure, selfless stand-point. The paradox is that the modern charity needs to be highly professional while never overtly appearing as such – and certainly never appearing to spend to this end.
In a real sense, then, there is a pressure on charities to present as ‘professional amateurs’ – to continue ensuring they work to the highest professional standards, from fundraising and customer service to financial accountability; while maintaining the more intimate, grass-roots image of the small-scale volunteer-run organisation. At first glance this may look like an unsatisfactory fudge, requiring you to project a misleading image of unsophisticated church-hall sincerity while leading complex modern organisations in command of budgets which dwarf those of many a private company.
However, it is as much about being able to access and highlight the characteristics that make the third sector unique: that it is ultimately values-driven and that its expenditures should always be instrumental to the cause. It is less about projecting the image of an organisation still run by volunteers, then, than about de-coding the attraction in that premise - that as someone working for a charity you’re motivated by deeper values than simply remuneration. As has become increasing important to distinguish in recent years, a charity should not be conflated with the private or public sector ‘fat cat’ lining your pockets at the donor’s – and beneficiary’s - expense.
Professional amateurism: becoming the Boris Johnson you can trust?
So how best to walk this tightrope? By combining consistent but simple branding that differentiates you from comparators and cultivates real affinity with a professional infrastructure that ensures donors are treated with efficiency and respect; and that they are given no reason to doubt your trustworthiness and effectiveness. Charities need, in a sense (and bear with us here...), to become the Boris Johnson you can trust with the details. Boris’s USP has long been the politician with a personality, his primary political capital arising from his inherent likeability and the sense that you are dealing with an individual and never a party apparatchik.
Recent polling by ComRes shows him nudging ahead of Ken Livingston (53% to 47%) and out-scoring his rival on any number of measures – from trusting him to delivering on promises to seeing him as the best bet to represent London abroad or at the Olympics. Nonetheless, when asked who best understands ‘the lives of people like me’, is most in touch with ‘the needs of ordinary people’ – or even who is the more ‘serious candidate’ - it is Ken who leads by some way4. The apparent contradiction here, that the perceived capacity to represent the majority of the capital is seemingly less important for voting intent than a more intangible likeability factor, may suggest many Londoners view the mayoralty primarily as a figure-head role.
Yet how much more powerful is the candidate able to harness the more nebulous trust of an instantly-recognisable and loved brand, while also instilling confidence in the capacity to handle the details behind the scenes? For charities, some of this is simply about managing appearances, since the right first impressions delivered throughout your communications will stick. So it might be that you print in matt even if it is more expensive than gloss – or that you tell people upfront on all direct mailings that no one travels first class at your organisation. But more substantially, it also means that you communicate your passion and values to the public and your supporters. This is where you are different from other sectors and why people want to trust the charities they give to, so ensure your values are upfront and clear.
As suggested already, does ‘volunteer’ just mean unpaid? Or is the public enthusiasm for this aspect of what defines a charity also about perceived passion and commitment; that while you are paid, this is not the sole motivator? Passionate service-providers offer the best ambassadors – and we know from our qualitative research experience that great case studies bring mailings and communications material alive even among non-supporter audiences. Quotes from those who benefited and those who are impressed, and clear, sincere accounts of real people and their families are invaluable. Similarly, as nfpSynergy has suggested before, being able to show the difference your charity has made in a ‘Pub facts’ form is a valuable exercise - digestible and simple facts that are impressive and easy for staff and supporters alike to remember and quote.
But beyond this surface layer, it is also important not to leave it to the public imagination if they’ll think the worst, and to know how to make a clear case for the changes and expenditures that are necessary. When you know you need to rebrand, ensure you can, and do, articulate to supporters how this will help you serve beneficiaries, encourage new donors and gain a louder voice in your area of work. Similarly, given the concern that we know senior salaries can generate - particularly in the era of expenses scandals and bonus culture - show how all staff and activities advance the cause. For example, is your Chief Executive an ‘administrative’ cost (and be warned, our research suggests that in the public mind he or she is)? Or are they a crucial campaigning advocate for raising public awareness of your work in researching an under-resourced health condition? Or the primary spokesperson in the public sphere on clean water and sanitation needs in the developing world?
The challenge, then, is to get the balance right between not bombarding with the financial details - but having the relevant information at your fingertips, dropped into communications via digestible, marketable facts. Not describing everything you do and spend on in your direct marketing materials but focusing on key areas of work people can relate to (and care about) in a targeted way. Getting the substance of your professionalism right, from customer care at the street or telemarketing level through to clear and accessible financial reporting, but treating the details like footnote references to your branding rather than the main text.
All data is from the Charity Awareness Monitor (CAM). For more details on CAM and how it could be of use to your organisation, please contact the CAM team, or call on 020 7426 8888.