Want to change hearts and minds? Start with your own

Winning hearts and minds must start from within charities – brand and culture – Neo

A brand story is much stronger if it rings true within the organisation. So if you want to connect better with your supporters, dare to begin with yourselves.

First published by Charity Comms on 3 March

In 2020, it’s never been more important — yet more difficult — for charities to win the support they need to answer some of the world’s biggest problems.

Just ask Britain’s biggest animal charity. Talk of a “performance pay” ultimatum along with recent reports of harassment and bullying at the RSPCA have inevitably cast a shadow over its public image. 

For RSPCA staff on strike, trust is reportedly running low. If there’s no trust within, how can charities expect to maintain and build trust in their supporters?

A charity’s most powerful advocates are the people it employs and recruits. Its purpose is nothing without people to embody it; to act on it. Audiences know this. 

The human connection

That’s why the strongest brands and campaigns belong to charities who can evoke a strong human connection between the problem and those who can make it better. (It’s not enough to play the compassion card.) They give people, both staff and supporters, an empowering part to play in their story and their cause. 

But what happens when that cause is pursued at the cost of people devoted to it? Here a charity undermines not only its staff and supporters, but also its very values. (Compassion, commitment, integrity are among RSPCA’s. Just saying.) The same values that form the foundation of its brand. 

While we’re compelled to work on what matters to us, we also want to know we matter. Yet reflecting on the cultural issues affecting the sector, it’s clear that many people don’t feel they do. Or at least not enough. 

Are people in your organisation truly living the story you want to tell about what you do and why?

Keeping people (volunteers included) and losing funds are among the top three concerns for charity leaders, according to Third Sector’s Charity Risk Barometer report. And there’s a good chance the two are related. Meanwhile, bad behaviour and bad press are cited among the main risks to reputation. 

So, if you want to win hearts and minds, forget fundraising tactics or supporter campaigns for a moment. The best place to start is within.

Acknowledge the elephants in the room

It’s about being as curious about your own colleagues as you are about your audiences. Are people in your organisation truly living the story you want to tell about what you do and why? Are they, whatever their level, demonstrating the beliefs, values and behaviours crucial to fulfilling your purpose? 

If not, why not? What stands in their way? And don’t be afraid to leave no stone unturned, no elephant in the room unacknowledged. 

When peeling back the layers of an identity under review, disconnection in a brand’s narrative can often mean disconnection internally. Siloed teams, poor communication, a lack of participation. Relationships between individuals and teams must be strong enough to support those you want to nurture with supporters. 

To flourish, those relationships need an open, empowering working culture where people are genuinely valued and invited to contribute collaboratively. Not the confines of corporate-style targets, unchallengeable institution or unhelpful hierarch.

Identity has the potential to be a binding force for everyone who identifies with a charity’s vision and mission.

Action Aid is one charity that’s challenged its ways of working, and not just by introducing shared decision-making. In embodying its feminist vision for young women and girls worldwide, its leaders are creating a culture that “seeks power with others instead of power over others”. 

As Action Aid chair Marie Staunton so eloquently puts, a charity’s ultimate focus is what difference its behaviours can make to beneficiaries. And it’s precisely those behaviours that can make or break a brand. 

Rewriting your story from the inside out

Take Here, for example, a social enterprise my agency Neo worked with a few years ago. Before its identity refresh, it was known as Brighton and Hove Integrated Healthcare (BICS). A corporate mouthful of a name and hardly the language of a compassionate, human organisation. 

While redefining their purpose and brand with Neo, the BICS team knew that if they really wanted to offer ‘care unbound’, shaped around the needs of the person, they would also need to reinvent how they worked with one another. Together they recognised that a mindful, people-come-first philosophy made perfect sense to its radical mission. With this, they were able to embed their purpose, and sense of presence, at every level of their operation.  

This is where it gets exciting for me as a brand strategist. If purpose and values are truly lived then identity can be much more than an outward face and voice. Identity is, as the eminently wise leadership author Margaret Wheatley describes, “the most powerful organising dynamic in life”. Therefore it has the potential to be a binding force for everyone — supporter or staff member — who identifies with a charity’s vision and mission.

We also saw this force come to fruition with Global Justice Now (World Development Movement before they came to us). In a process that involved people from all corners of the organisation, we redefined the movement as an accessible, collaborative and urgent campaigning voice every activist – staff, member or supporter – could get behind. 

As the organisation relaunched itself, membership surged. In fact, more new members joined in the first six months as Global Justice Now than in all the previous year as World Development Movement. 

Addressing brand and culture together

My point is that identity and culture (and strategy) are inseparable. So, they must be addressed together, as part of a holistic process. You can’t hope to build a meaningful, trusted brand on top of underlying tensions and divisions. It would be like planting a seed in infertile soil. 

The result of which is precarious. A surface job without the roots to last or the climate in which to support it.

We have to delve deep into what makes an organisation tick. To explore honestly every challenge to as well as opportunity for growing its presence. And to invite participation at all levels in shaping what it is to live and breathe its purpose. As staff at the RSPCA rightly asserted in their letter to leadership: “It is our charity. It belongs to all of us.”

Imagine the support your brand story could generate if everyone for whom the charity matters felt like a citizen of, rather than servant to, its cause? 

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