Matthew Sherrington: If you can't explain yourselves simply, you don't understand yourselves well enough

Charities must not let vanity affect their ability to engage supporters with a clear story, writes our columnist

Matthew Sherrington
Matthew Sherrington

Confucius said: "Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated." There's not a charity I've worked for that doesn't start out by telling me it is complicated. Who wants to be thought of as one-dimensional, without hidden depth? Here's a real example: "A sophisticated web of strategies is needed ... our approach is multi-dimensional and interconnected."

You know what? This is vanity. You're behaving like a teenager, desperate to be misunderstood. But vanity gets in the way of engaging supporters with a clear story. What supporters get from many fundraising programmes is a series of routine appeals made urgent by the mailing schedule, on topics determined by what hasn't been covered previously, what the organisation thinks it needs to talk about next and whatever half-decent case-study content is on the shelf. The appeals are further watered down by what can't be said, with all emotion beaten out by internal jargon and enough mealy-mouthed use of the conditional tense to satisfy the need to keep the money unrestricted.

When charity magazines hit 50 pages, you can be sure they aren't being read

I can't count the number of times I've had feedback on fundraising copy along the lines of "it doesn't explain the whole issue", accompanied by the re-insertion of all the programme jargon I have carefully reworded in real-speak. Charity magazines are a particular bane. When they hit 50 pages, you can be sure they aren't being read: they are either vessels for income- generating adverts or vanity projects – an opportunity to broadcast all you want, even if no one is listening. I once had a charity magazine editor tell me their ambition was for it to be available on news-stands.

Think about it: if you support an average of five charities and get three 50-page magazines a year from each, that's 750 pages of charity mag. I have a pile still in their biodegradable plastic. Wouldn't you rather spend the time on two novels? Fewer bite-size chunks, more often, I always say.

But it's important, you say. It is - to you. And you assume people, like you, will think the same if only they knew. But why should they? Why should they care? It's your job to know this stuff. But what would make you care if it wasn't? I expect the NHS to know what it's doing. I care about universal health care; I sort of want to know what's going on, but I don't want a crash course in clinical medicine every time I go to the doctor. I just want to feel better.

And this is the difference between pumping out information you think matters in order to educate people and effective communication that understands the audience, engages its interests and meets its needs. You hope to broaden awareness, deepen understanding and encourage more engagement, but preaching won't do it. At worst, there lurks condescension about the superficiality of the public. We all, including you, look at the headlines and photo captions first and read more only if they grab us. Remember, you have to meet people where they are in order to engage them.

I'm not saying simple is easy. It's not; it's hard work. But as Albert Einstein said: "If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough."

Matthew Sherrington is a consultant on strategy, fundraising and communications at Inspiring Action Consultancy

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