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Turning an internet craze into long-term support

Aaron Bass, get your communications right

How can passing interest in a viral campaign translate to supporter retention, at a time when the sector is struggling to win back public trust? Demonstrating meaningful outcomes is everything – but you must get your communications right, says Aaron Bass


The Ice Bucket Challenge was a craze that, for a time in 2014, knew no bounds. Barely a day went by when a politician, musician or other minor celebrity didn’t submit to having a bucket of iced water poured over their head.


Campaigns sweeping us all by storm and then disappearing are by no means a one-off. Everything from Children in Need to IBD Awareness Day has its date in the calendar and these campaigns often go viral, trending on Twitter and creating a buzz in the media. But the questions is: what next?

That question becomes a bigger one when we look at the sector as a whole. How do we turn passing interest into something more permanent?


The first step is to win back the public’s trust.


Too often, a charity that seems to be changing the world suddenly disappears, buried in scandal and discredited. Research from the Charity Commission published this summer showed that public confidence is at an all-time low, with only 57% of people surveyed still maintaining trust in the sector – down from 67% in 2014. One-third of those who had lost faith felt it was because of high-profile media stories. While we’re all bored of hearing it, the collapse of charities such as Kids Company has a knock-on effect on the whole sector. We have lost some of our credibility.


The problem is intensified by social media. Almost without exception, a social media search of any major charity will deliver some negative results. Whether that is a volunteer who has been rude to a supporter, a disgruntled potential employee who didn’t get a job or allegations about misuse of funds, the information is out there – and potential donors are reading it.


Some may look at 57% of the population supporting the work of charities as a positive, but it is an incredibly competitive market and we now have a record high of 43% of the general public who have lost confidence in the sector and are now less likely to donate, prompting a good deal of hand-wringing among charities.


What can be done to restore a battered reputation?


I think there is a lesson to be learned from the Ice Bucket Challenge. What did it actually achieve? What happened to the money that was donated? These are the questions that The Guardian tried to unpick in an article published in July. That the Ice Bucket Challenge raised a good deal of money is not in doubt. According to a New Yorker article published around the same time, the challenge raised more than $220m worldwide for the ALS Association, which funds research into the treatment of a form of motor neurone disease. Perhaps more importantly, it seems that it was an incredibly effective awareness-raising initiative for a disease that was, relatively speaking, little known.


Pleasingly, it looks like the initiative – derided by so many at the time as an exercise in vainglorious publicity rather than meaningful impact – paid off in terms of meaningful, charitable outcomes. It has been reported that the challenge has led to a very real and important breakthrough in medical research, with a genetic discovery that may point researchers in the direction of promising treatment possibilities. This second round of publicity wasn’t about generating more funds, it was simply letting their audience know what they’ve achieved.


Don’t make it all about money


The importance of communicating with donors and supporters in a way that doesn’t just involve repeated, regular and repetitive solicitations for donations can be underestimated. It often seems that fundraising communications are so preoccupied with the initial ‘ask’, whether delivered via a leaflet, a poster on a train, or a television appeal, that there is much less thought given to what comes afterwards. However, getting people to put their hands in their pockets is the simpler bit; the real challenge is getting them to do it again and again. This becomes much more likely if supporters are given a clear idea of what their donation has achieved – getting that communication right is vital.


Accuracy needs to be prioritised as every claim in the charity sector is scrutinised to the nth degree. Children in Need provides an interesting case study: as David Brindle wrote in his piece in The Guardian, giving the impression that every penny goes to charity does a disservice to the industry. There are also those who feel that this kind of claim leads to further scrutiny. If a charity employs the best part of 100 people, then some money is, rightly, going on wages. If the charity is claiming every penny is being spent on the cause, suddenly you have individuals questioning a charity that, in reality, is more than likely keeping to best practice in every other way. Call it scepticism, but if it leads to supporters not donating, then the damage is done.


Embrace the scrutiny


We are now in an era where charities are forced to go above and beyond when it comes to transparency. The National Council for Voluntary Organisations is one charity that has embraced greater transparency – there is a remuneration strategy in its annual report, and accessible information about income, expenditure and pay available on its website (not buried away in small print).


But we have to be aware that every communication can become viral with just one odd turn of phrase. The spotlight can be turned on a whole organisation or community because of a poorly written poster on a lamp post. Transparent, accurate, and timely communications around where donors’ money is going will provide supporters with the reassurance that it is being spent appropriately and effectively. That helps all of us and starts to rebuild trust in the sector.


Whether it is adopting a penguin at the zoo, sponsoring a French exchange trip or feeding Syrian refugees, it is in your interest to share your good work. Donor communications needs a proper strategy with clear messaging, appropriate calls to action and regular updates. We have many outlets, each with its own audience, and although our approach may differ between the various channels, our messaging needs to be consistent. Simply sharing the positives will allow donors to better engage with your cause. It will build trust in your organisation so that the public feel they know that their hard-earned cash is making a difference. Ultimately, that engagement can turn a viral campaign into long-term donors.


Aaron Bass is a senior account manager at The PR Office

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