Marketing your marketing – the challenge for charities

Almost 60% of donors are concerned that charities are spending donations on administration and fundraising. The figures, from research carried out for the Fundraising Standards Board, demonstrate one of the continuing challenges faced by fundraising and marketing teams in charity organisations – justifying their own existence to the people who pay for them.

The reason is obvious – a donor wants to feel their money is “directly” helping the cause they care about. If I give £100 to help homeless people, I’m going to feel more of a sense of having done something if I can “see” that £100 paying for warm clothing and a meal than if it goes into the pocket of a marketing manager or chief exec.

The messages charities give out in their marketing are all about that – creating an emotional bond between the donor and the individual(s) they are helping, and making the donor feel their money has made a direct difference.

But the problem arises when the reality of running a charity – you need to employ people who aren’t on the front line – clashes with the ideal that is being marketed.

Concerned Donors

Sixty percent is a big proportion to be concerned. Donors concerned about their donations don’t stay donors for long.

But the reality is that charities spend money on administration and marketing because it helps them help more people. We are working with a charity which has suffered hugely because it has concentrated its resources exclusively on paying for front line services rather than administration and marketing. The result is, it’s income has suffered massively and it is now considerably less able to directly help the cause it was set up to tackle.

I make the rather obvious point that if marketing didn’t work, no-one would do it. Coca Cola spends $1.5bn a year directly on marketing – because it makes considerably more than that as a result.

The challenge is, getting this across to donors – that if we spend £1 of your money on marketing it is because we will get £1.50 back as a result. That by marketing our charity, we are able to help even more people you care about than if we didn’t. That if we don’t market ourselves, we won’t be able to do our job of helping your favourite cause. That if the right people aren’t in charge your money won’t be spent as wisely and effectively as it could be.

The irony is that by selling so strongly the idea of donor income going directly the front-line, charities’ marketing teams are potentially undermining their own work in the eyes of donors, and leading to donors questioning the funding of an area that is not only essential but which actually directly helps the provision of front-line services.

Trust and Confidence

It’s an enormous challenge, but as FRSB chief executive Alistair McLean said in response to the report: “If we are to alleviate donors’ concerns and build trust and confidence, we need to educate the public, conveying just how committed charities are to best practice, professionalism and accountability”.

More than education – we need to start marketing this aspect too, rather than hiding it behind claims of “every penny you give goes directly to help X” which can be misunderstood and lead to resentment, and donor disengagement.

  1. You make a great point about marketing value, but for charities there is another dynamic at play that is not relevant for the Pepsis of this world. Charities’ ‘competitors’ are often doing great work. If £1 of marketing spend gets £1.50 of income but takes away £0.75p from other good charities is this still legitimate? Do we need to find a way of measuring conversion of non-donors to donors? Have people already done that? I only have the questions – any thoughts on this John?

  2. It’s an interesting point you make Andy – are charities in direct competition for donations with each other, and if so who is benefiting from one charity’s marketing success vs another’s?

    There aren’t really any established metrics for measuring which donations were “poached” from other charities, but I think there are some major differences in the response charities are expecting from their target market compared to that of, say, a drinks company.

    Charity marketing often aims to provoke the action of giving from someone who has natural empathy for the cause involved but who needs emotional provocation to turn the empathy into action. It’s then less about the benefits of that particular charity vs another in the same field and more about creating a donation that would otherwise not have happened.

    However, there certainly is an element of “competition” in trying to attract long-term support in the form of monthly giving. That’s where marketing which increases a charity’s visibility can pay big dividends – as donors are highly unlikely to “switch brands” once they’ve connected with a charity.

    Does this mean the charities with the biggest marketing budgets do better even if they work they do is no better than a less visible charity? Unfortunately, the answer is probably yes.

    But against that, the effort put into marketing by these bigger charities attracts considerably more donations overall than would have happened without it, and raises the profile of their causes in a way that would otherwise not be possible.

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