How do you reach those who find it hardest to seek support? On a journey of finding what matters most to a charity and its community of engineers, we discovered how it could solve the problem of a whole sector.
If you ever need financial or legal help, there’s a good chance that within your professional world you’ll find a dedicated benevolent fund that could provide it. That’s if you know what a benevolent fund is.
Against a backdrop of benefit cuts and occupational stress, these often resourceful organisations have never been more vital. Yet there are so many people who’re simply not aware of them. Or, worse still, they don’t feel these funds are really for them.
Part of the problem lies in the language. The term ‘benevolent fund’ speaks of a bygone, pre-welfare state era. It evokes the well-meaning but paternalistic — Victorian, even — values that many of these organisations were founded upon. And which, for some, still characterise how they relate and talk to their audiences.
As a narrative, the ‘generous institution helps needy beneficiary’ doesn’t work well in a modern setting. Not least because asking for help is already loaded with feelings of shame, guilt and failure. But also, due to a perception of circumstances, many of us hold the view that there’s always someone worse-off than ourselves.
So how do you reach those who find it hardest to seek support? People who may feel at their most vulnerable or think that their problems are insurmountable.
Few organisations felt this challenge more keenly than IET Connect, an independent charity supporting engineers and their families in the UK and beyond. As we learnt, the idea of asking strangers for help is even more unfathomable for people who consider themselves professional problem-solvers.
Looking at the territory, we could see why so many benevolent funds, particularly in industry, were struggling to pitch themselves. In some cases, communications were mawkish and patronising. While others overcompensated with a stuffy, overly ‘professional’ tone rather than connect with people on a personal level. So when it came to talking to their audiences, they were caught between the roles of corporate service-provider and sentimental saviour.
When IET Connect came to us, it was eager to shake off any such associations. The charity was established in 1890 to serve members of the Institute of Engineering and Technology (the IET). By 2018, it’d become so much more than a fund and it was eager to help many more people. What’s more, technically it was neither exclusively for engineers nor just for IET members.
They wanted to support people more proactively, in a more holistic and joined-up way. They wanted to support the person not the problem.
With a name better suited to a telecomms company, the current identity was confusing, somewhat institutional and obviously a barrier. It said little of the charity’s personal approach and the life-changing impact their work enabled.
This view resonated throughout the diverse group of stakeholders we spoke to — people for whom the charity meant a great deal. As one IET member pointed out, this was an “organisation of support professionals who truly care, not just people writing cheques”.
Over the years, IET Connect had evolved to offer or signpost a wide range of specialist services — extending well beyond the financial and legal. But without a strong thread to hold it all together, it made for a difficult story to tell. It was facing that age-old dilemma: say too much and you end up saying nothing at all.
What’s more, many would discover the charity only after hitting rock-bottom. And by exuding a sense of ‘crisis’, IET Connect was putting people off from relating to what they could offer, which in some cases might help prevent things from getting worse.
Whether providing options or supporting people in building the capacity to help themselves, IET Connect wanted to be the first, not necessarily last, port of call.
Now, with a galvanised team and new CEO onboard, there was appetite in the organisation to make this leap. The team was ready to hit reset and wanted help in discovering who they were, what they wanted to achieve and how.
Together we saw the opportunity to redefine not just the language of benevolent funds, but the entire concept. What is it? Who is it for? Why does it exist?
Through our research and discovery work, it was clear they wanted to be able to respond better to a complex and constantly shifting landscape of interconnected needs. A landscape with wellbeing, social welfare and professional equality at its heart. They wanted to do this more proactively, in a more holistic and joined-up way. To support the person not the problem.
We found in IET Connect a team tremendously motivated by the possibilities within their reach.
The prospects were exciting. We saw the opportunity to redefine not just the language of benevolent funds, but the entire concept. What is it? Who is it for? Why does it exist?
We had a pretty good instinct from the insight garnered in our research phase. But to answer these questions truthfully and rigorously, we needed to start within. That meant delving deep into the beliefs and behaviours, motivations and mindsets of those at the heart of the work. Refreshingly, the whole team was open to what might emerge.
Together we arrived at the beginnings of a clear, collective sense of purpose, which we’d later refine as: ‘We exist so no engineer or their family need ever face life’s problems alone’. This was predicated on the overarching belief that everyone needs, and is worthy of, a little help in life.
NO EMPTY PROMISES
To support the refreshed purpose, we captured a series of commitments for everyone in the organisation, and in its wider community, to own and enact. These were a step above values. The team didn’t want their values to be empty promises in an annual report or an aspirational poster on the wall. They wanted to live and breathe them, and learn by them.
All this was held together by three decisive themes: supporting the ‘whole person’; support that puts people in the driving seat; and an inclusive, self-supporting community. These would help to express the charity’s more empathic, person-centred and progressive style and standpoint.
We were in a good place, with the team feeling we’d captured the essence of who they were. So much so that the charity’s CEO told us she’d had to restrain herself from punching the air and shouting “yes!” on her morning commute.
We should say that the foundation work benefited from a pause. On starting at IET Connect, the new CEO had seen our initial work and felt it could be bolder, just as she had energised the team’s initial ideas on how the organisation could be more innovative. It was refreshing to see the ante upped, especially in a sector that tends toward the risk-averse.
So, the articulation of the new identity ended up being sandwiched around a big, additional piece of research. (The findings of which helped us to refine it.) As an organisation, they had a rough idea of where they wanted to be, but how would they get there?
As one respondent said: “I’m British, male and in my fifties. We don’t ask for help!”
To answer the challenges of the world around them, they needed to know how best to shape their role in it. To increase and diversify support, they needed to know precisely what, why and for whom. If they were to connect with new groups of people, especially those hard to reach, they needed to better understand their needs.
We’d already carried out some audience profiling and empathy mapping as part of the identity discovery work. But such a momentous shift in strategy called for a much broader, larger-scale and service-focused study. Working with our partner Shed Research, we engaged almost 1,700 people, from diverse backgrounds in the UK and from other parts of the world.
THE INDOMITABLE ENGINEER
The research shone a light on potential areas of new support while also substantiating what we knew about our audience. That the majority of respondents said they wouldn’t ask for help was striking yet unsurprising. The ‘indomitable engineer’ attitude — again, unsurprisingly — seemed to be most prevalent among men.
As one respondent said: “I’m British, male and in my fifties. We don’t ask for help!”
However, help is clearly what many said they needed or envisaged needing later in life. The nature of that support was varied, but, as anticipated, there was a strong focus on mental and physical wellbeing and professional isolation.
And, of course, the needs around those were interrelated and often complex. Someone’s mental or physical health can affect their finances, just as a job loss can affect them emotionally. Wellbeing really is at the heart of everything.
On that note, the results spoke volumes about how people felt their needs were, or weren’t, being served in wider society. Positively, many respondents pointed to how engineers could help one another, which chimed with the emerging themes from our research and discovery work. Peer support was, in fact, the need that came up most.
We backed up our findings with wider landscape research on the topics of care, wellbeing, income and the living wage, and loneliness. We then went on to facilitate an all-team workshop to further understand what trends were driving people’s needs. And to help them reshape their strategy around them.
From that work came a new long-term plan and mission — underpinned by an overarching ambition: to increase the wellbeing of engineers and their families worldwide.
SOLVING THE PROBLEM
To realise this ambition, it was clear that embracing the problem-solving, self-sufficient mindset would be vital. We needed to translate the charity’s refreshed purpose and personality into the kind of narrative engineers would respond to.
With problems being an inherent part of engineering, there was a chance to turn the idea of something perceived as debilitating or ‘weak’ on its head. As Henry Petroski, professor of civil engineering, once said: “Successful engineering is all about understanding how things break or fail.” Much like life itself.
Empowerment, undeniably, was the essence of who the charity was at heart. The team’s own shift toward a more empowering, open workplace culture mirrored the kind of support they wanted to offer. By understanding the ‘whole person’ and building a community around that, they could provide a service through which people could play an active part in solving their own problems.
The potential for IET Connect to nurture and hold that sense of community was significant. After all, this was a charity for and funded by engineers.
This came through strongly in the intentions and outcomes of their work, and through the voices of those who benefitted. Resilient people who demonstrated the human truth that we all need help at times, no matter how resourceful we are.
SUPPORT FOR ENGINEERS, BY ENGINEERS
During our earlier research, we spoke to the inspirational Katy Deacon, a former Young Woman Engineer of the Year and champion of women in engineering. Her life was thrown off balance when she became so ill with MS that she could barely spend quality time with her family, let alone progress her promising career.
Listening to Katy, it was clear that she’d initially resisted asking for help; she felt she’d lost enough control.
Eventually her husband put her in touch with IET Connect and, with an initial emotional call, she began to move forward. With financial and moral support, Katy ended up redesigning her home and garden to maximise her mobility. In the process, she felt a renewed sense of purpose. She found her feet again and came to terms with her circumstances.
“Much of engineering is black and white, but life isn’t. I knew I had to help myself precisely by being an engineer again,” she said. “This realisation helped me to get past the barrier of asking for support.”
ILLUSTRATING THE ‘WHY’
Throughout her journey, Katy had experienced her engineering community as a ‘professional family’, where “I can solve it” changed to “we can solve it”.
It was stories like these that illustrated beautifully the ‘why’ of IET Connect’s existence. Hearing them, and listening to the views of thousands of people taking part in the wider research, we could see how the kind of organisation IET Connect wanted to be would fit with what engineers might relate to.
A mutually supportive engineering community, as Katy alluded to, was part of that picture. The potential for IET Connect to nurture and hold that sense of community was significant. After all, this was a charity for and funded by engineers.
Community, as an idea, also had its roots in the founding philosophy — of engineers helping out their fellow colleagues in times of need. But now it was being envisaged in a much more modern, liberating context.
PUTTING A NAME TO PURPOSE
In the extra gestation time, the themes that emerged in the early discovery work were really beginning to come to life as one overarching story. A story of intuitive, person-centred support that puts people in the driving seat. Of solving problems together. Of trust, positivity and possibility.
But before developing it further, we needed to put a name to it.
Renaming organisations is often one of the hardest parts of an identity refresh, especially one as radical as this. A lot of trial-and-error goes into finding a name that speaks of purpose; one that’s distinct, memorable and which rolls off the tongue easily. It’s an exciting and creative process, but one that can be fraught with pressure.
Even when the scales weigh in favour of a new name, such a change is always risky. In this case, some felt that the association with the IET, with its founding members, was at stake.
It was, however, firmly agreed that its inclusion in the name was doing more harm than good, particularly as there were so many eponymous ‘IET’ services and spin-offs. To widen the net, even beyond IET members, it was a risk worth taking.
A UNIQUE ROLE
Among the many ideas that bubbled to the surface, one seemed to sum up the charity’s unique role and take on support in a tangible way.
A strong, reassuring place to start. A place from which options appear. A way forward.
‘Foothold’ related to its audience as active seekers — not passive receivers — of support, and to finding strength in a vulnerable position.
‘Foothold’ didn’t land with a ‘eureka!’ moment (new names rarely do — consider Nike), but it quickly grew on the team. It felt positive, gently confident, solid. It was simple, succinct and it stuck. Crucially it related to their audience as active seekers — not passive receivers — of support, and to finding strength in a vulnerable position. A ‘foothold’ could also be something you leave for others, for people who find themselves in your shoes.
With a symbolic name, a descriptive strapline is usually a good idea. ‘Supporting engineers’ neatly added the context Foothold needed to speak to its core audience.
And so ‘Foothold’ gave rise to a distinct new language with which to tell this story of support. ‘Getting a foothold on life’s challenges’. Finding your foothold’. For the charity, it presented a way to tell people ‘your Foothold is here’, and to say that it considered them capable no matter what their situation.
It lent well to building a very human, relatable narrative around the beliefs, purpose and commitments. And a way of talking about life’s problems. We reframed how Foothold would talk about itself and the people it helped. By phasing out ‘benevolent fund’ and ‘beneficiary’ and using more human, helpful terms, the charity could turn numbers into people and remove any sense of ‘us and them’.
FINDING OUR FOOTHOLD
Translating the idea into visual language was a natural but by no means straightforward task.
We turned again to the engineering world for subtle cues. Inspired by the technical drawing paper that engineers use, we illustrated a device that tied up all of our themes.
If you look closely, these dots could be little footholds. More than that, they formed a grid: a space in which engineers could solve their own problems, or at least begin to map out their options.
The grid also conveyed a network of mutual and specialist support. It neatly housed a series of interchangeable icons illustrating different service areas, from wellbeing and relationships to housing and finance. With this, Foothold could demonstrate its holistic approach — in an animation, for instance — as well as tailor communications to talk to specific audiences and issues.
It was more than a logo; it was an uplifting symbol of support designed around an individual’s needs.
We mixed a vibrant colour palette that would flex to different moods and purposes, and also capture the rational and emotional sides of the brand. For the leading primary colour we chose a calm, refreshing teal that chimed with aspects of wellbeing and innovation.
Other elements of the visual identity fell into place. A friendly, modern and accessible typography — web-safe and easily readable. Supporting illustrations that evoked engineering precision while at the same time a warmth and sense of freedom. And guidance to help build a library of images showing the human connections in people’s lives; connections Foothold could help to enrich.
These visual tools, along with our writing guidance, would help the team to tell stories of a personal world that a group of serious professionals could relate to.
TESTING THE THEORY
Of course, that was the theory, albeit a theory based on months of research-based development. Even so, we needed to test it out on the people for whom Foothold mattered the most.
Firstly we presented the identity to the board of trustees, some of whom had been involved in the process earlier on. It was vital they understood our intentions and process, and saw the value in the charity’s investment. Overall, they felt reassured and enthused. They liked the fact the brand was “versatile” and that the team could make it their own.
“The powerful narrative that Neo developed formed the foundation of our strategy. Our new identity is bold and speaks to our newfound sense of equality with our community.” — Jane Petit, CEO, Foothold
Then we canvassed opinion among our sounding board of stakeholders — including the most important of audiences: engineers and their families. The work was met with resounding positivity. All in all, they felt that Foothold was an identity befitting of an organisation so attuned to people’s needs.
One person, who’d benefitted from Foothold’s support, said: “It helps me to understand we’re all in it together.”
TRIAL AND ERROR
The real test, we find, happens in practice and in how identity is applied. It takes time to develop and evaluate a new way of communicating. As in engineering, trial and error is an integral part of it.
For an identity to succeed, investment is required in both living and expressing its values. What we created with Foothold was a foundation from which to build a clear, truthful sense of self but also a more progressive working culture.
“The articulation of this new identity was one of the real strong points of Neo’s work,” reflected CEO Jane Petit. “The narrative they developed was very powerful and formed the foundations of the strategy we’re now working with. Our new identity is bold and speaks to our newfound sense of equality with our community.”
During the strategy phase, the Foothold team had set themselves an ambitious goal of supporting three times more people by 2022. And in the process, make sure the engineering community knew about them. They now felt they had the tools to achieve it.
SPRING 2020 (AND ANOTHER TEST)
For charities providing direct support, there is a danger that successful identity projects can open the floodgates a little too quickly. That’s precisely what happened in spring 2020, albeit amid unprecedented circumstances that intensified demand for Foothold’s services.
During the coronavirus lockdown, the Foothold team found themselves responding to a sharp and sudden rise in calls for help. Like many others at the time, they adapted quickly and stepped up their efforts.
We were heartened to hear that the new direction was helping — and in the ways we’d all intended. The team reflected that it was now much easier for people to think “this is for me”. Finally, they were beginning to take down the barriers between them and the community they wanted to serve.