The charity sector was founded by, and is driven by, people with vision. Those who share that vision, whether as a focus of their lives or as part of their altruistic make-up, are drawn to them. And yet, as charities shift from charismatic models of leadership to develop size and scale, these emotionally engaging visions have become increasingly sanitised. As a result, many charities have stopped being "collectives" of like-minded people and their core beliefs are frequently obscured.
With our sector’s reputation taking a battering, charities need to regain their unique sense of identity and raison d’être. They need to re-assert the fact that we are here to solve major problems and we should be sourcing, and then magnifying, the very essence of what this means to our multi-faceted audiences.
The National Union of Students realised this when facing a crisis having "failed" on student fees. They asked their target audience, in this case students, what they really valued and wanted. The NUS handed over its digital platforms so that people could set up their own interest and sub groups, from which they were able to craft a brand that drew from student voices.
By doing this, it got to the hearts of the seven million students it represents, showcasing the realities of student lives and re-establishing itself as a student welfare organisation, broadening out from a narrow political cadre.
Without doubt, this took courage. Building a platform from which everyone can participate, then stepping back to allow them to do so, means relinquishing control over the brand. To be transformational this has to be based on a powerful, single-minded "truth" or "philosophy" that people can interpret in their own way. It’s about coherence, not the dogma of "consistent".
In our work with mental health charities, we have seen first-hand how co-creation taps into the most powerful form of drive, one that builds brands by aligning with a transformative idea. It is no longer about the individual; it is about the group as a whole and it is as far away from good old-fashioned persuasion as a brand manager can get. As a result, marketers need to learn to distance themselves from the end result, in effect becoming the enabling tool that helps people express and achieve their goals.
Macmillan understood that to trigger a shift towards an identity its audiences would genuinely relate to involved letting them help to shape and define the brand. At the time this strategy was deemed both bold and dangerous yet it resulted in Macmillan becoming one of the Uk's most recognised, trusted and respected brands, trumping many bigger spenders in the process.
Switching from an organisation that cares for people affected by cancer to a powerful movement that allowed everyone involved to become a brand ambassador and a co-producer, meant embracing the fact that the most powerful brand isn’t the one it owns but the one its audience owns. With this realisation, emphasis was readily placed on sharing rather than selling, and on joining the conversation rather than taking over the microphone.
Marketers that grasp this attitudinal shift are able to turn their audiences into invaluable participants. Those that don’t risk increasing distance as the world moves on.
If digital is used merely as another means of broadcast, many charities will slip into oblivion as involvement dwindles from "hard core" to "passionate but busy", drifting away to "interested but…".
Max du Bois is executive director at the brand consultancy Spencer du Bois