Donors could be the new weapon in the charity marketer's arsenal - but only if they are well-informed, says Alex Blyth.
Donors have always been the holy grail for fundraisers, but their true value may lie not in their wallets, but in their address books. Charities are used to targeting donors in the hope of persuading them to increase their monthly direct debits or support a one-off appeal. Many charities could not survive without the vital funds provided by donors. But supporters also fulfil a less obvious role: that of ambassadors and marketers.
Charities today spend a large proportion of their income on donor acquisition campaigns - but, as any consumer marketer will tell you, the best way to acquire a new customer is word of mouth recommendation. Turning your existing donors from silent supporters into vocal advocates will do more for your income than any marketing campaign.
However, charities face more of a challenge than other brands, says David Burrows, planner at marketing agency TDA. "Most of us have an opinion about Tesco or Starbucks because we have visited their stores; we have opinions about BMW because we see their cars on the roads; and we have opinions about Guinness because, even if we don't drink the stuff, we are familiar with the TV advertising," he says. "But few of us will directly experience the work of Arthritis Research, Barnardo's or Christian Aid beyond putting some coins in an envelope or sending off a cheque."
Even if you can reach your donors and get them talking to their friends and family about your organisation, they will make successful ambassadors only if they are well-informed. In recent years, charities have had to work hard to fight the perception that they spend excessive amounts of their income on administration and to defend spending on fundraising and salaries. This is relevant to all charities, but there may be specific misconceptions that you need to address.
Regular communications can help to dispel these myths. By giving your supporters the facts, you can build a strong organisation with a shared sense of purpose. By making it a two-way dialogue, you can go even further, energising supporters to even greater levels of engagement.
More than anything else, many of your supporters want to know what is happening in the organisation they give their money or time to. Some will have a good idea of what the charity does locally, but less awareness of how this fits into a broader national picture. So you should tell them about new research breakthroughs, individual success stories or legislative developments - anything that shows them the difference their work or money is having.
"Charities still have a long way to go on this," says Tris Lumley, senior analyst at donor consultancy New Philanthropy Capital. "Their main problem is that it's not always easy for them to articulate their results. A company can show its shareholders increased profits, but charities have a harder task showing how they've informed a public debate, built a development infrastructure or shifted public perception. Although the bottom line is more complicated for charities, they can still focus on giving clear facts and telling compelling stories."
Relate is one charity that is doing this well, he says: "Relate has spent two years developing a system for measuring the outcomes of its work.
It's been a major investment, but now Relate can talk to its supporters about how many training courses and counselling sessions it's run and how many people it's helped. On its website it has the killer facts that, in the past year, it has helped 4,900 people with sexual problems and 93 per cent of people who've worked with Relate say their sex lives have improved. This is something that people will remember and tell their friends."
Knowing that you want to get messages across to donors is one thing - knowing how best to communication those messages is quite another. There are many ways of reaching out to donors, whether it is face to face at an event of some kind, through printed material, email or the internet.
For most charities a combination of several approaches works best.
The most effective way to communicate with supporters is to do it in person. The Cystic Fibrosis Trust is particularly keen on this technique and invites key volunteers and supporters into its laboratories. These are often one-to-one sessions, and the charity encourages visitors to ask questions. Scientists and clinicians also go to small forums around the country. The chief executive attends branch meetings, and regional staff often visit supporters in their own homes or workplaces.
"Meeting supporters takes up time and resources, but is an excellent way of letting them know how special and appreciated they are," says Sarah Guthrie, director of fundraising. "It also gives them an opportunity to give you feedback."
One-to-one meetings are effective but expensive, so many charities prefer to hold larger events. Leonard Cheshire runs annual volunteer conferences with educational update sessions, workshops and thank-you awards for supporters.
Udeni Salmon, head of volunteer support at the charity, says: "Volunteers appreciate the fact that senior managers will travel out to their local areas to speak to them. Without this sort of regular communication, supporters can become disenfranchised."
Existing events, such as a conference, AGM or fundraising gala, can also be used to communicate.
Showing groups of donors one of your projects in action is a memorable way of showcasing the charity's achievements. Children's charity the Together Trust recently invited 100 supporters to the opening of its new centre.
"It provided a good opportunity for supporters to see what we're spending their money on," says Andy Haines, chief executive. "We think this culture of inclusiveness helps to cement their support for us."
Face-to-face communication provides the greatest depth of any technique, but also the least breadth. Such communication can usually reach only a few hundred supporters at most, so many charities opt for producing some kind of printed material that they can send to several thousand.
A recent example of this is the booklet produced towards the end of 2005 by Oxfam, entitled The Art of Self-Defence.
The colourful, pocket-sized booklet was intended to give supporters the facts they need to counter common criticisms of the charity. It contains ten myths supporters might face, such as "Oxfam spends most of its money on admin", "All African leaders are corrupt, so what's the point in giving?" and "Oxfam is too close to the Government to criticise its policies".
Each page is dedicated to a different myth and the appropriate response.
These rebuttals are succinct and include key facts, such as "only four pence in every pound is spent on admin". The accessible tone and colourful pictures (both of project work and supporters pulling self-defence moves) are clearly designed with supporters in mind. But the whole booklet is a call to action, encouraging supporters to talk about Oxfam and what it does, and to fend off misinformed attacks.
A booklet is a good way of disseminating facts to a wide audience. Making a film allows you to show your supporters the difference you are making or the scale of the challenge you face - without having to pay for them all to visit the location.
Last Christmas, Save the Children sent its supporters a DVD, on which it thanked them for their support, told them four stories to show them the difference their support made and asked for their continued support. By using sympathetic suppliers, free footage and its own staff to edit the film, Save the Children was able to produce the DVD for less than 18p a copy.
Perhaps the most popular method of communicating with supporters is a magazine or a newsletter. It allows the charity to convey a large amount of information, written by several people - and, because it is regular, supporters often look forward to receiving and reading it. On the downside, however, people are bombarded with reading material these days and are becoming increasingly selective about what they read. A charity magazine has to be well-written, designed and produced, and this is often a major challenge for charities. Few of them have the resources to pay professional writers, so they rely on supporters or employees to produce high-quality content on time. Similarly, they usually need to find sympathetic designers, printers and distributors if they are to stop costs spiralling out of control.
There is no way round it. Producing a high-quality publication costs money. There are, however, some solutions to this funding gap. Disability Challengers is a Guildford-based charity that provides play and leisure opportunities for disabled children in Surrey. It is a small charity with only 15 core staff, but it still manages to produce a newsletter, costing £2,500 per issue twice a year. It does this by getting the publication sponsored by a local business, Toshiba. With corporate social responsibility a hot topic at many companies, this is a real possibility for most charities.
Shelley Smith, fundraising co-ordinator at the organisation, says: "The magazine is an excellent way to let our supporters know what we're doing, and we couldn't do it without the support of Toshiba and of the staff and volunteers who kindly write our articles."
The Arthritis Research Campaign sends a magazine every quarter to the 30,000 or so people who give more than £15 a year to the charity. It also goes to 70,000 sufferers, volunteers and health professionals. The magazine covers areas such as new grants, recent research findings and human interest stories. Jane Tadman, the editor, writes most of the content, but pays for photography as well as for print and distribution.
The charity is able to sustain these costs because it devotes eight of the 32 pages in the magazine to advertising - and this, through the efforts of a contract sales company, generates between £15,000 and £22,000 per issue.
"The aim is not to make a profit, but to offset some of the costs," says Tadman. "The magazine keeps our donors up to date with what we're doing with their money. Sometimes it can be hard to see how £15 makes a difference. I hope we demonstrate in the magazine that it really does."
Some charities are large enough to be able to absorb the full costs of producing a magazine. Great Ormond Street Hospital uses a contract publisher, PSP Communications, for its Lifeline magazine, which goes to about 60,000 donors three times a year. The magazine costs £16,000 per edition to produce. Graham Lake, a partner at PSP Communications, admits that this deters many charities, but he points to research showing that 92 per cent of Gosh supporters approve of the magazine.
He says: "It might be a cost, but because it is a good quality publication, Gosh can use it to ask for increased donations or as a platform for specific appeals. It's important to do these magazines well, though. You need to be absolutely clear about your message and objectives. You must know your audience, get the tone right and use appropriate visuals. For instance, the average age of a Lifeline reader is 65, so having star-bursts all over the page would be inappropriate.
"Finally, employ professional writers. Don't try to write it yourself - it won't be good enough."
Occasionally, charities need to communicate an important and urgent message to supporters as well as to the wider public. In these circumstances, advertising is the best method. It is expensive, but it reaches a large number of people rapidly.
When extensive media coverage of two rogue charities severely dented public confidence in the Scottish voluntary sector in 2003, 14 charities, together with the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations and the Institute of Fundraising Scotland, formed Giving Scotland to run an advertising campaign and get the public back onside.
Within a month it raised £100,000 and launched TV, radio and press advertisements highlighting the good work done by the Scottish charity sector. Through negotiation, Giving Scotland was able to secure £250,000 worth of advertising, and it had an effect. A poll by The Herald newspaper before the campaign showed that 52 per cent of Scots were less likely to give to charity after the scandals. The survey was not repeated after the campaign, but a separate poll showed that the campaign had reached 70 per cent of adults an average of five times each, and that more than 500,000 Scots, 10 per cent of the population, were now likely to give to charity. Anecdotal evidence from charities suggested that giving had recovered.
The internet is a less expensive way of communicating with large numbers of people. It is ideal for presenting a large amount of information about an issue in which people are interested. The British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection uses its website to convey information about animal experiments, a subject that excites great passions, but about which few have the facts.
Alistair Currie, campaigns director at BUAV, says: "The polarisation in the debate on animal experiments is partly because of a central information vacuum. The UK's 2.8 million or so annual animal experiments take place behind closed doors, and details of procedures and results rarely enter the public domain. BUAV puts considerable effort into uncovering information and, although publications such as BUAV Action are useful, they offer relatively little space for the very large amounts of information we could communicate. Our website offers far more opportunity."
Just as companies are increasingly using email as a way of building customer loyalty and retention, so charities that have collected the email addresses of their donors and volunteers are finding it a highly cost-effective and responsive way of communicating with them. The Dogs Trust uses email as a tactical tool to update supporters in areas such as political lobbying, events invitations, fundraising and the opening of new rescue centres.
Adrian Burder, marketing director at the trust, says: "Email is a cheap way of informing supporters and getting them involved. However, if the email content is deemed to be irrelevant, supporters will unsubscribe, so it's important we get it right. Volunteers, like donors, have choices. They can support a whole number of charities in their localities. If we want their support, they must understand what we do and feel we are worthy of their help."