Use frequent, clear messages to improve public understanding, new report urges charities

Short, snappy and regular messages are the key to building public understanding of modern charities and how they work, according to a new report. “Getting the Message Across,” written by research consultancy nfpSynergy, says that there are huge misconceptions about charities and their spending, but they can be combatted with the right narrative and soundbites.

The report, out today, is the second on the topic and was written because “it is clear that the gap between how charities work and how the public think they work remains substantial.” Based on surveys of the public and three focus groups with donors, it says that public trust and understanding in charities is volatile and can be damaged by negative media stories, myths and poor understanding.

The paper looks at what can be done to improve understanding and advises simple, positive and clear messages with the right soundbites and arguments will increase public acceptance and support. It also advises charities to explain the necessity of their structures and to emphasise transparency and accountability in everything they do.

It goes on to look at some themes every charity can communicate and reviews the approaches they can use. It also has eight key points for charities to take away:

1. Public misconceptions abound when it comes to charities, including whether charity staff are overpaid, admin and fundraising spend is wasteful and inefficient or that too little reaches the cause. Negative media stories, myths and poor understanding around charities’ operations risks creating mistrust in the sector.

2. With the right facts and arguments, public acceptance and support grows. Mistrust in charities is not fixed. Qualitative research shows the powerful role that good explanations can have in changing the debate. With a few key arguments at their disposal, even potential sceptics can become powerful advocates for charities.

3. Simple, positive and clear messages to break down barriers and myths…Charities need to have a voice in the debate - using their communications strategies to provide a positive story and build public comprehension.

4. Demonstrate charities’ vital role in society. One of the most positive ways to reduce public mistrust is to remind them how vital charity work is to society. Demonstrating the impact you have is vital in building understanding and trust in how that impact is achieved.

5. Explain the necessity of charities’ structures and operations. Charities must prove that investment in fundraising and administrative costs is not wasted expenditure and that it directly enables maximising impact for the cause. Show you do value someone’s donation by demonstrating the efficiencies that you do make.

6. Provide reassurance against fears of inefficiency or mismanagement. Our research shows reminding the public that charities are regulated and must adhere to strict standards is an easy win in counteracting fears about misuse of funds.

7. Whatever your approach, emphasise transparency and accountability. Each one is a demonstration to the public that charities are accountable and transparent; impact and successes are communicated in tangible and clear terms, efficiencies are proven and accountability to the public is emphasised.

8. A drizzle, not a deluge, to get the message across. To change opinion, messages need to be embedded in everything you do. Short, snappy communications provide memorable messages to gradually build both public support and a sector which is more resilient to negative stories and misinformation. 

nfpSynergy’s Driver of Ideas, Joe Saxton, said:

"All of our research shows that trust in charities is volatile and understanding of charities and how they work is poor. We’re advising charities to use simple, clear and memorable messages and use them again and again and again. But no charity can do it alone, which is why the new Understanding Charities Group that CharityComms has set up is so important. With constant reminders of the great work charities do and why it costs money, we can build a public image of the sector that is more resistant to negative stories and based on what charities actually do, rather than misconceptions."

Please see the attached report for more details.

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Getting the Message Across

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