Volunteers Week at Listen

Yesterday marked the end of Volunteers Week, the annual celebration of the amazing contribution millions of volunteers make across the UK every year.

We were very happy to play our small part in this at Listen and last weekend around 100 of our fundraisers and managers volunteered to give up their Sunday evening to take calls for Soccer Aid 2016, working for 6 hours on what turned out to be the hottest day of the year so far.


This was the second Soccer Aid we’ve been actively involved in and we’re really proud to be part of this flagship event. By the end of the night we had played our part in helping raise £5.4m for UNICEF, which was received across phone, text and digital channels, an astonishing sum which truly underlines the power and reach of integrated fundraising campaigns. It should be said that this figure was helped by the government’s commitment to match all public donations pound for pound and our thanks must go to everyone who gave up their time, and, of course, to the public for their generosity.

This was followed up on Wednesday when our team organised a voluntary cycle ride in the office for RSPCA Week. We had a member of our team continually on the bike for over 6 hours to enable us to cycle the distance between London and Cardiff, chosen because RSPCA covers England and Wales. This meant that each of our volunteers had to average over 30mph for each of their 5 minute slots, no mean feat, especially given some of the fitter amongst the team kept this up for nearly half an hour! We also had a sizeable bakesale and raised lots of money for RSPCA in the process.

At a time when our sector has had to weather some significant challenges, including sharp criticism in some sections of the media, it is sometimes worth remembering the selflessness and genuine passion for civil society that fundraisers have. So thank you to everyone who volunteered in some capacity last week, not least our team at Listen!



An interesting year

It is fair to say the last year has been incredibly busy for all of us in the sector and as a result it has been quite a while since my last blog entry. Whilst I have generally shied away from discussing Listen explicitly in my blog I thought I would break with tradition and provide a general update on where we are for those who don’t have the opportunity to speak with us regularly.

The sector has seen much upheaval over the last year and we have now entered an entirely new regulatory era, a change we welcome. Regardless of the reasons behind the ongoing media focus on the sector, the fact is that public attitudes and loyalties have been sorely tested, and every aspect of fundraising and charity governance have been placed under intense scrutiny.

At Listen, as you know, we had to meet challenges of our own. Frankly, it is all too easy to fall into the trap of being defensive when things get tough, which is why we decided to use the circumstances of last year as a launch pad for improvement.

We carefully considered everything that happened across the sector last summer, and have worked hard to develop in the right way. We have been at great pains to be completely transparent about what we do, and how we go about it, and have kept our key stakeholders informed at all times, inviting feedback on a regular basis.

The independent audit by Grant Thornton was our first step. It turned out to be an immensely useful process, because it looked at every aspect of our operation, including our culture which we felt was called into question at the time.

It was an exacting process and everyone we work with received a copy of all the findings in the audit. It provided much reassurance and useful suggestions were made and acted upon.

For instance, the audit praised Listen’s incentive scheme for encouraging the right behaviour from our fundraisers. This was good to hear, but we pressed on with further improvements, intensifying the focus on the quality of the supporter experience.

All of our recruitment and reference checking is rigorously carried out by professional agencies.

We also continue to be the best-paying agency in London. Our full-time staff working core hours receive the London Living Wage as a minimum and, as far as we are aware, we are the only agency never to have used zero hours contracts for our fundraisers. It is our firm belief that a good fundraiser experience will lead to a good supporter experience and this is why our fundraisers have remained loyal, and for this and many other reasons we thank them wholeheartedly.

All of our induction training sessions are now filmed in their entirety and the recordings made available to our partners, who can see for themselves exactly how we train our fundraisers unedited, every single week. This is in addition to our ongoing policy of recording every call we make so that all our partners can hear how we represent them whenever they like.

Someone once asked how Listen manages to be so resilient. It may sound cheesy, but our name indicates exactly what we do: we listen. Very carefully. And we act on what we hear.

We have learned a great deal in the last 12 months. Working closely with our partners, we continue to test and develop new approaches, and are seeing very encouraging results both in terms of the quality of supporter experience during our conversations as well as the traditional commercial metrics. But we are not complacent and appreciate that this will be an ongoing process, something we find genuinely exciting.

One of the key positives to be taken from the last year is that there is a commendable willingness to improve things across the sector as a whole. The above is a small snapshot of the many things we have developed over the last year and we believe that there are many reasons to be optimistic about the future. If anyone would like specifics on how we are going about this then please feel free to get in touch.

Why Ending The Awkward really matters

There’s something about having a disability that can prompt people to call you ‘brave’.

And this, in truth, can be a pretty confounding moment, because to my mind there’s nothing particularly brave about having something unfortunate or challenging happen to you. (Whereas the decision to do something remarkable with that challenge, and the way one goes about doing that something, can be).

As someone with a disability of my own, I still occasionally run into people who, uneasy about quite what to say around the topic (though typically, let’s note, with good enough intentions in mind), wedge themselves unhappily between a stab at sympathy, a song of admiration, and a fluster of outright bafflement as they formulate words that come out, no doubt, not quite how they hoped.

And highlighting this has been one of the many marvellous things about Scope’s superb  End The Awkward campaign, which last week pointed a powerful spotlight on issues of disability and whose impact can still be felt online (on social media especially, where the hashtag #EndTheAwkward powers on).

As the campaign so ably points out, the real heart of the issue is that most people just don’t get enough chances to interact with people with disabilities. Most Brits, they note therefore, “say they don’t feel comfortable talking to disabled people”, mainly because “they’re worried about doing or saying the wrong thing and feeling awkward.”

Clearly, that’s a problem, all the more so when Scope’s research shows that younger people are more likely to have negative attitudes towards disabled people.

With that audience, particularly, in mind End The Awkward really was an exemplar for the modern digital/broadcast awareness campaign – blending social media, video, innovative film-making and plenty of digital smarts to paint a full, sometimes comical, sometimes maddening portrait of the experiences of people with disability out and about in a world that is, it’s hard to dispute, still primarily able-body minded.

I can’t commend it enough, and am heartened to have seen it generate so much engagement – thanks in no small part to the involvement of Channel 4, whose excellent series of comic shorts can (and should) be viewed here.

In the final analysis (and as with so many things) ‘the awkward’ will remain an issue until certain core values, embedded in the broader public consciousness, shift. After all, the point so many conversational faux pas are fumbling for is that one must be ‘brave’ to have a disability because (it’s assumed) living with one must be so inestimably terrible. It’s not, of course, and altering that perspective is a piece of work that will take a long time to achieve.

End the Awkward, nonetheless, is a tremendous starting point on that journey. How far-sighted, too, to formulate a campaign that deals with these delicate, difficult, painful and relatively nuanced breakdowns of human interaction with a lightness and warmth that makes the starker truths at the core of the disability agenda – abuse, discrimination, workplace prejudice and worse – all the more accessible.

Let’s finish with an #EndTheAwkward recollection of my own. Back when I first became disabled and had to begin honing my fledgling wheelchair skills, people would regularly apologise to me whenever I ran over their foot, even though it was clearly my fault! It was a very simple example of people not knowing how to react to someone in my position, trying to be nice, but accidentally conjuring up a bizarre social scenario.

Those kinds of moments are, truly, awkward for everybody involved. Here’s to Scope’s inspired campaign to help make that a thing of the past.

Fundraising in World War II: how turmoil united a nation

A week today will mark 75 years exactly since the very first aerial dogfights of the Battle of Britain.

Above the Channel and above Britain the planes of the ostensibly outnumbered Royal Air Force would go on to defend their territory against the marauding Nazi Luftwaffe for the next four months. And for those resident down below, the war never felt more cataclysmic.

In time the RAF and its Allied counterparts would win a famous victory over their opponents, and in doing so, cause Germany to shelve its planned invasion of Britain for good. And while, as I wrote recently in the Part I of this blog, the Battle of Britain was ‘just’ one of many hundreds of pivotal campaigns that made up the totality of World War II, there are few that have become so iconic (as a feature film starring Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine attests).

Nor, indeed, so close to home.

Which is why marking the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain is also an apt time to consider the impact on the war effort of those who lived here: relatives of those fighting, communities trying to stay strong, and – above all for our purposes here – those volunteering their time and energy to support the cause through fundraising and other charitable acts (which were critical in a war that cost the nation many millions – and billions in today’s money).

Their role in the war was unquestionably central, even if they weren’t at the front fighting per se. And as one of the many fundraising badges (or in this case, early key rings, given in exchange for donations) put it, the sense across the nation was that: “It all depends on me.”

it all depends on me badge

This was the attitude communities across the country operated with: a wilful commitment to making a difference by pooling resources and getting others around them involved.  The marvellous anecdotes are many: the little Gloucester girl who raised money for the local firefighters’ group by selling posies door-to-door (she raised enough for a substantial First Aid box and made the local paper); the widowed, working mum who raised money for defence weapons by helping to organise “Spitfire Weeks” featuring fundraising dances, garden parties and even whist tournaments in Cardiff.

But on a national scale, this can-do attitude resulted in what Louise Daintrey so capably summarised in a 2010 SOFII showcase as “the most successful fundraising appeal ever”: the Duke of Gloucester’s special Red Cross and St. John appeal.

As I noted in Part I, what stands out about fundraising in the Second World War was the proliferation of fundraising innovation (a continuation, in fact, of an enterprising spirit that had seen the development and evolution of flag days, celebrity ambassadors, even direct mail during WWI). But the Duke of Gloucester’s appeal was the gold standard, raising £2 billion in today’s money (by the historic standard of living index) and making use of payroll giving, house-to-house collections and pop-up charity shops that laid the foundation for those we have today.

But what marked the appeal out as truly groundbreaking was its targeted nature. Its payroll giving scheme was aimed squarely at wage earners (via the TUC and Employers’ Organisation), doubtless with a hearty dose of “It all depends on me”-type urging added in for good measure – and indeed the penny-a-week scheme made up a third of the total amount raised when it was all said and done. The appeal’s agricultural fund, meanwhile, was supported by the National Farmer’s Union and centred upon fundraising events in rural locations. And even door-to-door collections were limited to 23 strategically selected London boroughs (once, that is, specific legislation had been brought in to make them as safe and fraud-resistant as possible).

It was, frankly, a terrific success and a triumph for rudimentary segmentation. An appeal as diverse in its methods and audiences as any that had come before. For alongside traditional fundraising staples like flag days and gala concerts were far more ‘niche’ offerings around coin collecting (in which the numismatic society sold currency at auction) and even dentistry (wherein proceeds from selling old toothpaste tubes were donated).

And here’s the thing. This appeal – and all the fundraising that took place during WWII, whatever the scale – succeeded in spades despite the fact its benefactors were, in the main, ordinary people whose own material wellbeing was spiralling downwards as wartime austerity took its toll.

Or as Daintrey puts it: “The public’s generosity (to the Duke of Gloucester’s appeal) is all the more remarkable as the money was raised at a time when the country was tightening its belt and ‘make do and mend’ and rationing were the norm.”

She’s precisely right. Here was a nation of people, who with their eyes fixed firmly on the skies as the German Luftwaffe arrived above and bombs began to fall, some 75 years ago, made a collective, perhaps even instinctive decision:

Not to run for the hills or subordinate the needs of others to their own, but to deepen their sense of community and nurture unity. They didn’t falter. Rather, they dug deep – in their hearts and in their pockets – and, in time, overcame as a nation.

Find out more about the Battle of Britain and its 75th anniversary celebrations at the Battle of Britain Memorial Trust.

When bombs fell on Britain

Some 75 years and a week ago, on 18 June 1940, Sir Winston Churchill announced grimly to parliament that the Second World War was about to enter a dire, significantly more local phase: “The Battle of France is over,” he said. “The Battle of Britain is about to commence.”

And, indeed, a short time later, on 10 July, Germany’s fighters and bombers took to the skies in what was intended to be the first stage of ‘Operation Sea Lion’: the invasion and capture of the British Isles by (at least initially) primarily aerial means.

Down on the ground, a proud but increasingly pressed populace could do little but wait and watch in fear, and prepare as best it could for the terrifying spectre of warfare in the skies above.

Or so you might think. But – in fact – just as it had in World War I, people did anything but sit back passive, preferring instead to pull together and make any positive impact they could through tireless voluntary action, no end of traditional British pluck, and good old-fashioned fundraising.

It is, of course, the fundraising part that most interests us here, and you may remember that back in 2014, I wrote a collection of blogs about the central if under-reported role of fundraising during World War I. In researching them, I learned how many of the fundraising staples we rely on to this day were innovated back then. And, along the way, I also learned that the UK’s WWII war effort was every bit as dependent on the magnanimity of its own people.

After all, WWII cost Britain about £75 billion, or £3 trillion today (World War I, in contrast, cost around £160 billion in today’s money). And of course, the bill was footed in myriad ways: taxes, war bonds, international loans.

And fundraising.

Certainly, it was fundraising that enabled the work one of the most remarkable wartime institutions of all: the Joint War Organisation, whose vital auxiliary hospitals and convalescent homes were the direct result of a wartime merger between the British Red Cross and the Order of St. John of Jerusalem. How vital? Considering one in six RAF Bomber Command pilots were killed during the Battle of Britain and countless more injured, and that Germany’s defeat therein paved the way for the Blitz (which killed 40,000 British civilians and injured many more) their significance cannot be overestimated.

Remarkably the Joint War Organisation was able to do all this because it raised some £54 million in voluntary contributions by war’s end (over £2 billion today). Nor was this an easy task: on the day war was declared, the charity had just £2000 in its coffers, and paper rationing (which severely limited pamphleting and posters) and air raids (which scuppered outdoor fundraising events) made spreading the word a complex task. Add to that the fact the evolution of the British tax system had made the monied, upper classes far less amenable to charitable giving, and you wonder how they did it.

In the end, a combination of everyday folk – regular wage earning workers – and outright innovation won the day, all of tied neatly up in the Duke of Gloucester’s special British Red Cross and St. John Ambulance appeal. Fascinatingly, the appeal relied heavily on new techniques we now think of as staples: regular giving (via penny-a-week payroll scheme), the first house-to-house collections, and a new wave of ‘modern’ charity shops selling donated goods to raise funds.

the blitz

I’ll be writing more, in a fortnight’s time, about the first days and weeks of the Battle of Britain, and about the country’s commitment to raising money to keep the war effort going strong.

But for now, 75 years after Churchill first delivered his dire news, it’s the right time to consider how those who lived through those first, tentative and terrifying stages of the Battle of Britain, and the five harrowing years of worldwide war that followed after, must have felt.

Anxious, uncertain, isolated and afraid.

And yet, somehow – and as history shows us – determined, unfazed and empowered too. Because quickly, and with courage, they joined together, organised themselves, and found new and sustained ways to support those fighting on the front – emotionally, physically, and financially too.

A moment for reflection

On Wednesday I got the chance to present some pretty fascinating data as part of the IoF’s Fundraising Media DNA 2015 report launch.

Listen was the lead sponsor of the report’s telephone segment, so I got the chance to talk about the impact telephone fundraising has – the report estimates that it raises some £35 million annually for UK charities, although our belief is that the figure is significantly higher than this – and to unpack some excellent fast.MAP research that shows how those receiving calls see this medium of fundraising as authoritative, personal and above all responsive (at levels far higher than fundraisers who were also polled were expecting them to).

But of course the standards and practices of all charitable fundraising – telephone included – have (understandably) come into focus recently in the context of the sad death of Olive Cooke – a remarkable woman who did an enormous amount for charity through the course of her life, but who committed suicide last week at the age of 92, reportedly feeling inundated by requests from charities to donate.

Mrs. Cooke’s family has since repudiated the idea that charity requests were to blame, but it nonetheless remains an apposite moment to stand back and consider how we fundraisers, as a key component that enables charities to do the vital work they do, go about our business.

And, certainly, the fast.MAP research is a helpful, objective look at our sector and the merits and challenges that are part and parcel of every fundraising channel.

So what about the things we telephone fundraisers are not doing well? And, in the context of last week’s distressing news, how can we make sure we’re serving the recipients of our phone calls as well as possible, and hearing their needs?

As I suggested on Wednesday, it’s clear that there’s a need for the sector to improve its engagement with supporters during calls, especially with older (55 years old+) recipients, who report the phone is one of their least favourite ways to be approached. And that means – where possible – playing to the telephone’s strengths by stepping away from a rigid ‘script’ and delving into more meaningful, two-way conversations (and even making those conversations ends in themselves).

To take this one step further, might it even be time for charities to start thinking in terms of running non-financial campaigns as well as out-and-out fundraising ones? As brand- and consumer-builders that can in time lead to outcomes further up the fundraising ladder, I certainly think the idea has legs. That said, when put into the context of an era of ongoing austerity, where the government continues to cut funding whilst also asking charities to provide additional services for their beneficiaries, there is more pressure than ever on charities to generate income in ever more resourceful ways, and this is a shift that many will find difficult to sign off on, at least for now.

But as we do take stock of our wider fundraising practices – no matter what kind of fundraiser we are – it’s critical that we are measured and calm in our analysis and actions. It is, of course, easy to be influenced disproportionately by media voices calling for urgent and sweeping change – the kinds of voices we have heard in the significant media reaction to Mrs. Cooke’s death – but we must guard against too swift a response, or an over-regulated sector that damages the long term health of its member charities (charities which Mrs. Cooke “believed… are the backbone to our communities,” according to her granddaughter, Jessica Dunne.)

How can charities who are responsible for the provision of vital services, or research, or care, rein in their fundraising activities, as another piece of research suggested this week (while reporting allegedly high levels of irritation with most fundraising channels)? They can’t. And is the IoF Code of Conduct something that needs to be radically changed forthwith? Doing so ignores that the existing code is more thorough, exacting, and clear than those in any other sector – and exists to protect, and empower, people who might choose to support.

Rather, we need to move purposefully but carefully, staying abreast of best practice, and finding ways to make potential and existing supporters feel not like a target, but as someone with whom we’d – genuinely – like to swap ideas and share a discussion.

Because now is not the time to be too defensive, rather it is time to focus on the many, many things we do well as fundraisers – not least share discursive experience with the people we contact – and to continue to nurture those things moving forward.

If you’d like a digital copy of the full Fundraising DNA 2015 report, please send an email to info@Listenfundraising.com.

Politicking the boxes

We’re nearly there. The parties have unveiled their manifestos and argued their cases. The leaders have been paraded up and down the country. And – critical in this time of dressing things up in the most appealing manner – the stars of the show have even plumped for their favourite tailors.

Yep, it’s general election time.

But since so much of the electoral campaign has been – as always – driven by fundraising (something has to pay for all the outreach, key messaging, advertising and campaign trail hitting after all), what better opportunity to explore how the landscape of UK political fundraising during electoral campaigns is changing?

The story begins with a certain Barack Obama, a truly great rhetorician with an unparalleled record in raising campaign money ahead of an election. Simply, Obama has smashed records for money raised in a US electoral campaign over the years, totalling an impressive $500m in 2008, and an astounding $700m in 2012.

And whereas one might argue that some areas of fundraising in the US non-profit sector lag behind the UK, it’s clear the reverse is true when it comes to political fundraising: Obama’s teams have been at the forefront of making money-raising digital and personal, and in so doing unlocking the way to low- and mid-value donations from a relatively untapped, digitally-savvy supporter base, something politicians here in Britain are only now beginning to explore.

According to Jim Messina, Obama’s 2012 campaign manager, the shift to digital came from a simple insight, which was Obama’s own: “The very first day he offered me the job (he) said this had to be about the grassroots.”

That emphasis unlocked a means – digital, above all – of reaching out to individual supporters in a broader way than ever before. And  Messina, David Alexrod (Obama’s Senior Strategist) and Co. did so by diversifying the ways in which voters could engage with Obama (in 2008, the soon-to-be President’s team had funnelled digital traffic towards a single website, My.BarackObama.com, only), tapping into social media and emerging platforms – and ensuring Obama had digital territory on everything from Facebook to Twitter to Tumblr. Within all of this activity, the Obama camp also did some serious audience segmentation work, targeting segments in the (often digital) places they tended to congregate, and (and this is where the forward-looking met perfectly with the ostensibly regressive in Obama’s campaigns) got out into the streets and, simply, knocked on more doors and had more conversations on more doorsteps in more key swing states than any campaign team before.

But, of course, Obama’s forward-thinking tactics are more than just a modern day exemplar for political fundraisers here in the UK. Because two of his former senior advisors – Axelrod and Messina themselves – are now working in UK politics, for Labour and the Conservatives respectively. All of which means digitally-savvy, strategically segmented, yet grassroots-focussed US style fundraising has unquestionably arrived on these shores.

Axelrod has been subject to criticism that he has been somewhat remote from the Labour campaign despite a six-figure pay packet (a claim he denies), but clearly Axelrodian thinking and approaches have made an instant impact on his adopted party’s fundraising, as a recent £1 million pound fundraising success story evidenced. The campaign was – you guessed it – powered by HTML email and resulted in a “surge” of low-value donations to the party. In a format that will be familiar to us third sector types, named recipients (“Dear Tony…”) were invited to tick one of three donation boxes valued at £5, £10 and £20. And critically, this digital offer was tied in with an integrated campaign of letters and phone calls too, which netted a further £2.3m through many thousands of “small” donations. Pretty tidy.

The Conservatives are (rightly or wrongly) more traditionally viewed as being funded by big business leaders and high net worth individuals able to write huge cheques with the mere swoosh of a pen. But clearly the party has internalised some of the lessons Messina has to teach: like Labour, they have made sure digital inroads – using email software to solicit supporter donations in the £10-500 range.

Of course, this emerging emphasis doesn’t mean the Conservatives – or Labour for that matter – are moving away from courting the wealthy with a view to securing significant one-off donations, far from it. And there’s no shortage of anecdotal evidence – or controversy – to underscore how big donations from big business remains their fundraising bread and butter. The mind boggles, for instance, at reports of the Conservatives’ ultra-exclusive silent auctions in which luxurious trips to Santorini (which reportedly fetch £220,000), and miniature bronze statues of the late Margaret Thatcher (which go for £210,000) are on offer.

And of course, if that’s too rich for your tastes, you could always plump for a relatively cheap tennis tryst with David Cameron and Boris Johnson themselves – as one wealthy Russian did last summer – for £160,000.

But Labour’s own big money events are no less glitzy or lucrative – with a recent gala dinner in which works of art made by the likes of Grayson Perry and Anthony Gormley were auctioned off for huge sums, adding some £500,000 to party coffers ahead of the election.

Not to be outdone in the sporting stakes, there was also the opportunity to play a couple of games of Five-Aside with a team of Labour “all-stars” (which, considering that included Ed Balls, you’d have to assume to be a fairly loose description) – which sold for a mere £24,000.

So let’s be clear: major political parties on both sides of the Pond still rely on high-value donations from individuals, industries and sectors they are more than willing to wine and dine behind closed doors. But, inspired by Obama’s US successes and (as a result) forking out huge sums to his former advisors, UK political parties are now explicitly reaching out more and more to ‘everyday’ supporters to help fund their campaigns on a much humbler, but no less important, scale.

To put it another way, we’re now seeing political fundraisers on both sides of the pond start to do some of the things we in the UK NGO sector have been doing for years – from focused segmentation to personalised digital communications to one-on-one conversations by phone and face-to-face – because they flat out work.

And – considering how often we chastise ourselves as a sector for being risk averse or slow to adapt – it’s a reminder just how sophisticated, and effective, so many of the fundraising practices we take for granted these days, truly are.

Make Poverty History Lesson: what can it teach us 10 years on?

This post originally appeared at 101fundraising.org in March – thanks to all who have shared and responded to it in great numbers!

You probably remember it much as I do: the white wristbands, the star-studded Live8 concert, the remarkable celebrity ‘finger click’ ads, Blair and Brown and the G8 summit engaged and involved. And all of it geared to one heartfelt plea: Make Poverty History.

In the campaign’s own words that meant: ‘trade justice, dropping the debt, and more and better aid.’ It was elegantly, stirringly simple, urgent and empowering. How could any of us say ‘no’?

But as extraordinary as it was to witness and be a part of, Make Poverty History was not without its controversies or critics – far from it.

Ten years on it has an extraordinary amount to teach us: about mobilising hundreds of thousands; about capturing public imagination; about morphing those achievements into the fundraising mechanics that make the wheels of such an ambitious campaign turn.

The iconic Make Poverty History wristband

The iconic Make Poverty History wristband

But I think what’s really striking about it – especially at a time when organisations like the UK’s Understanding Charities Group are grappling with the problem of encouraging nuance in public and media understanding of NGOs, and less than a year after Bond’s landmark report into public attitudes to povertyuncovered that exact same need for nuanced understanding – is the fundamental discord between the complexity of real-world poverty the powers behind it had hoped to communicate, and the streamlined message ultimately adopted to prompt masses of people stand up and join in.

It’s a reminder that the tension between the intricacies of real-life crises and their associated solutions, and the simplified way we find ourselves forced to communicate them, is nothing new in the world of charity.

And that this is one fault line we as fundraisers and campaigners will always have to step carefully around.

A masterclass in public engagement

Let’s think about all the things that Make Poverty History did right – and there were plenty of them.

MPH was a masterclass in public engagement. A rousing, extraordinarily empowering message was twinned neatly with a cavalcade of celebrity backers (an old First World War trick) and the resulting outpouring of support was vast and spectacular: in Britain 440,000 people emailed then Prime Minister Tony Blair to signal their allegiance to the campaign’s aims and close to a quarter of a million people took to the streets of Edinburgh for the flagship Make Poverty History march.

Make Poverty History wasn’t (or didn’t feel like) a fundraising campaign per se: the outstanding ‘finger click’ advertisements in which the likes of Brad Pitt, Liam Neeson and Kate Moss snapped their fingers every three seconds to mark the jaw-dropping regularity of needless child death from extreme poverty asked for only a visit to the MPH website (where the main call to action was a campaigning one). And those who attended Live8 itself were pointedly not asked to dig in their pockets (though the ‘free’ event tickets were, strictly speaking, applied for via text message that cost £1.50).

And yet it was, quietly, a fundraising phenomenon.

First of all there were the little white wristbands, totem of one’s adherence to the movement’s aims, and under-the-radar money maker too. A significant (and justified) media storm around the working conditions of those actually making the bands notwithstanding, millions bought them (some 4 million had been sold by July 2005), and given that each cost £1 (with 70 pence going to the campaign itself) they were a potent source of funds for INGOs playing a part.

Then there was the income member charities were able to raise through associated fundraising campaigns. The likes of Oxfam and ActionAid were able to ride the wave of Make Poverty History (with which they were intimately associated, Oxfam having assembled the coalition behind MPH in 2003) by incorporating it into their own campaigns, not least face-to-face, where the iconic white bands often became part of a thank you for pledges made on the street and elsewhere.

And of course there were the leads generated by the campaign action itself: almost overnight, UK INGOs had many thousands of new names on their databases interested in their work.

Success: in the eye of the beholder

But things weren’t as simple as that, and for some the subordination of the coalition’s early, pretty radical aims to a simplified (though hugely mobilising) and apolitical public-facing message ensured MPH was a failure from the word go.

On the one hand, MPH really did achieve some incredible things. Here’s a quick summary from a 2013 Oxfam online article that touches on the excellent things MPH did do:

“The display of people-power led to unparalleled pressure on G8 leaders to take action at the Gleneagles Summit. They responded by committing to cancel debts owed to the World Bank, IMF, and African Development Bank and to increase annual aid to poor countries by US$50 billion by 2010.”

It points out, too, that pledges made as part of the G8 summit – which few could argue weren’t influenced by the message MPH was sharing – enabled some remarkable changes worldwide including the launch of free healthcare in Zambia, and abolished primary school fees in Ghana, Malawi, Tanzania, and Uganda (leading to millions more children enrolled in schools). Per a survey of 10 African countries with cancelled debts, they saw an approximate 40% increase in education spending, and 70% in healthcare spending.

But the problem, at least to hear some tell it, was a conflict between the campaign’s originally sophisticated message, and the techniques that made it such a public engagement phenomenon. As one insider was quoted as saying:

“Our real demands on trade, aid and debt, and our criticisms of UK government policy in developing countries (were) consistently swallowed up by white bands, celebrity luvvies and praise upon praise for Blair and Brown.”

For many, Make Poverty History and its core decisions makers made it easy for Blair, Brown and the UK government to co-opt its message so that they, and it, became indistinguishable from one another, even though the UK government was one of the bodies that needed to be held to account above all – and not perceived as a flag bearer for the fight for financial justice somewhere out there in the world.

And much like the enduring debate around Band Aid, there was the sense, too, that Make Poverty History and its associated communications were – once again – depicting Africa as hapless, helpless victim.

And in fact, not everything went to plan as far as deliverables were concerned: the G8’s collective $50 billion aid promise was short by $20 billion at its 2010 deadline, and European countries remain a long way off meeting their collective promise of 0.7% GNI target by 2015.

A Make Poverty History lesson

Whatever side of the fence you’re on (what matters more: huge changes achieved and hundreds of thousands engaged, or a larger, arguably more groundbreaking vision for change irretrievably lost in the process?) there are few better case studies to illustrate the perennial clash between complex truths and the limitations of language used to express them.

My own opinion is that a fundraiser’s job is to engage people quickly, as Make Poverty History did, and that once he or she has successfully captured a supporter’s attention, it’s then incumbent upon them to unpack complexity as the relationships with that supporter develops (which is supporter engagement and retention by any other name).

And in the end the simplicity of the Make Poverty History message produced public engagement that helped ensure $30 billion of aid was provided. And even if that figure was 40% short of what was originally agreed, one could argue – as I would – that it’s $30 billion more than might have been pledge without it.

But the larger question remains: can fundraisers and campaigners really communicate about need in the world and expect significant public engagement without sacrificing the depth of their message?

At a time when the initiatives like Britain’s Understanding Charities group are fusing together their combined grey matter to try and answer that question, the 10th anniversary of Make Poverty History forces us to recognise it’s never been achieved before.

And yet it also reminds us that historic firsts – of which Make Poverty History recorded many – can, and do, happen.

And that nothing is achieved without the trying.

How WCMT’s hidden heroes shape Britain

It’s not every day you meet HRH the Queen, but on Wednesday evening, that’s precisely what I did.

Before you jump to any far-fetched conclusions, no, I haven’t popped up as a late, surprise entrant on the Honours lists, and no, this is not a poetic way of explaining I somehow bumped into Helen Mirren on the tube.

tony queen

Rather, I was a very proud participant in an event that – to some degree – has flown under the British public’s radar but that, all things considered, really ought to be a banner event nationwide.

I’m referring to the semi-centennial of the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust.

Now, the 50th anniversary of the death of Winston Churchill – extraordinary, steel-nerved Prime Minister, speech giver, and in many minds greatest Briton ever – that certainly hasn’t passed under the radar this year, and rightly so: he was a remarkable, iconic figure whose ability to engage the public with passion and the power of language could teach all of us in third sector a thing or two.

But the charity founded in his name remains little-known despite its jaw-dropping influence on the country we live in.

The events that led me to be involved with the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust are something I have written about before: how, when I was a promising young sportsman at the age of 13, doctors diagnosed a tumour in my spine that required surgery, seven months of arduous rehab, and an eventual prognosis that I would never walk again.

I was lucky enough to be able to prove that prognosis wrong sometime after my 14th birthday, and of the many remarkable things followed (including help from the wonderful Whizz-Kidz, and winning the junior Wheelchair Tennis nationals at 15), a Fellowship from the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust stood out: I got to research Wheelchair Tennis across Europe and beyond, and was proud to become its youngest ever Fellow.

In so doing I became one of over 5,000 British Citizens who have been awarded Churchill Fellowships since its inception 1965 (the year of its namesake’s passing), from some 100,000 applicants. And, honoured as certainly I was to be among those taking part in the special reception at Buckingham Palace, what really struck me (apart from how lovely, down-to-earth and genuine Her Majesty is in person) was how astonishingly diverse, life-altering and yet inconspicuous the work the Trust has made possible is.

Truly, the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust has funded some of this nation’s most unsung heroes – all the more admirable at a time when the chimera that was the supposed ‘big society’ has faded away, and yet the economic and social imperatives for each of us to help each other out remain inarguably urgent.

I’m thinking of people like Alvin Crisp, a retired fire serviceman from Huddersfield who in 1989 witnessed a colleague fall through a floor and get burnt very badly, and realised then and there that something had to be done about lack of provision of immediate burns treatment. He used a fellowship to research American practices and equipment and changed the way the UK provides initial burns care and treatment forever, greatly reducing suffering, infection and disfigurement to burns casualties.

Or how about Dr Lisa Ackerley, from St Albans, who in 1990 undertook a research project into food control and food inspection training across Canada and America. What she found out has since changed UK food safety law and impacted legislation – such that the techniques she uncovered and developed further are now common place across the UK, affecting each and every one of us daily.

Or there’s Samantha Wills, from Solihull, whose father – himself a Fellow who investigated opportunities to strengthen the British economy after 1992 – told me proudly how his daughter (a helicopter paramedic based in the North West) used her Fellowship to map out the UK Catastrophe response programme for helicopters. Which is to say: if ever an unthinkable, national emergency happened to Britain, the strategic deployment of our helicopters has been devised by her so that as many lives as possible can be saved.

I could go on, but the point is the WCMT continues to pour funds into critical areas of research: it’s marking its semi-centennial by awarding a record 150 Travelling Fellowships, and investing some £1.3m in UK citizens. They will travel to 58 countries between them, across six continents, where they will carry out a wide range of Fellowship projects lasting, on average, 6 weeks. And the long and the short of it is, when they return, the knowledge and innovation they encounter will be fed back into professions and communities across the UK.

As Jamie Balfour, Director General of WCMT said: “Sir Winston’s legacy lives on through our Fellows – individuals who, like him, have vision, leadership, a passion with a purpose, and a commitment to help their fellow citizens.”

I think that’s precisely right, only I think they have one more thing too: a willingness to do so without fanfare or yearning for recognition. It’s something I saw with my own eyes on Wednesday.

And it’s something that the UK can be really, truly proud of. Here’s to another 50 years of this great Trust’s outstanding work.

You can find out lots of other ways to get involved in celebrating the 50th anniversary of Churchill’s death right here.

The Press and the Third Sector, Part II: Learning to share

In the first part of this blog around the way charities are presented by the press (often negatively) and how our responses to it so far have fared (often badly), I argued the case  for a coherent, integrated, robust riposte from the third sector as a whole.

But I also suggested something exciting is happening in exactly that regard – the Understanding Charities Group – and I’m pleased to say this edition will delve a little deeper into what this innovative collective will actually be doing. (And as someone who has been championing this kind of unified action for many years, forgive me if I do so with great relish.)

One of the key things to know about the way charities are presented in the press is that, typically, the attitudes we uncover in news stories and opinion pieces are attitudes entrenched in the general public too.

Regardless of where you land on the somewhat chicken-and-egg debate around which prompts the other, the fact is newspapers aren’t the only ones who are suspicious about (for example) how money given to charities is spent: people out in the world are too.

But are we entirely blameless in that?

The truth is tittle-tattle abhors a vacuum, and if we find that so much of what is written negatively about charities strikes us as hot air – that is, misunderstands, misrepresents or flat out disrespects what we do – isn’t that in part because we as a sector have failed to forge our own strong, sticky narratives that fill in the blanks that surely exist around what a charity is, what it’s for and (above all) what it takes to run such an entity successfully (where success = projects that make a difference and longevity as an organisation)?

I think the answer is yes, in so small part because – as charities, and as fundraisers in particular – we’re in the business of communicating both what is disastrously wrong with the world, and how easy it is to fix it (often for “£x a month”). These are, quite understandably, conflicting messages for a baffled public to hear.

So, if we want to change all of this, and if in the end we want to be able to have a well informed media write well informed and balanced things about us, we have a broader education job to do, and we have to work with the media to do it.

Enter the Understanding Charities Group.

The Understanding Charities Group is formed of some of the biggest, brightest minds in charity. Its remit is to spread wider understanding about what charities are and what they do through forging a singular, proactive narrative, and (as a result of that) to gain more generic media coverage. Crucially, it will also focus on developing a ‘media rebuttal protocol’ that helps non-profit organisations respond when issues around salaries, fundraising methods, admin costs and the rest do, inevitably, blow up.

The bottom line is that if we are to alter the climate of unrealistic expectations around what charities are, what they can achieve and how they should go about achieving it, we have to share.

But share what?

I wrote in the first part of this blog that total disclosure – an unchecked flow of information from charities out into the world in an attempt to evidence our good intentions and even better operating practices – is a dangerous game to play, and like Sir Stephen Bubb, I’m not convinced about NCVO’s recent suggestion of ‘a register of political interests’ for high ranking NGO staff.

But it is imperative that we do share with the world a more nuanced, complex and truthful narrative around what it means to be a charity, because only then will that wider world understand what it means to (say) pay a charity CEO a certain salary, or to (say) fund a project that might otherwise look like ‘political campaigning’ when it is, in fact, focussed only on solving practical issues that came about as a result of decisions taken by a specific government with a specific manifesto.

What might that look like? That’s the next part of a process the Understanding Charities Group is still evolving, but certainly thinking in terms of new ways to report the impacts we make out there in the world, as well as establishing clearer standards of accountability and transparency, and perhaps of business regulation too, should be part of the mix.

In the long run, doing this will provide more than just a toolkit or frame of reference: it will also engender culture of confidence through which charities can speak with clarity, and speak robustly – a word I italicise because robustness is, finally, an end-product of certainty in one’s working practices, larger goals, and everything else that goes with them.

I look forward to reporting more about the continuing journey of the Understanding Charities Group as it unfolds in the coming months and years.

But for now let’s enjoy the legitimate sense of optimism it affords: that the public, and the media that writes for it, might know and understand charities better as we move forward.

And, therefore, respect them all the more too.

If you’re interested in becoming part of the Understanding Charities Group please contact Vicky Browning on vicky@charitycomms.org.uk