Charities should follow the example of the Olympics, says our columnist, with a new identity that affirms the values and aspirations of the sector and helps it stand out in hard times
The charity sector prides itself on its values, but we still tend to pussyfoot around the issue. We are quite comfortable with quality standards, kitemarks and the notion that a guarantee of charity performance could be an attractive selling point to donors. But what we don't have, and ought to consider, is branding that would express the sector's common ethics, values and non-profit status.
One of the most striking legacies of the Olympics is the power of branding in establishing a positive identity, as we saw in the success of the overall family branding that represented the spirit and meaning of the games, as well as the debates about Britishness sparked off by the (albeit at times oblique) references to Jerusalem and the NHS in Danny Boyle's opening ceremony. Could a strong new branding, or trademark, which affirmed the values and aspirations of the sector, help charities in the struggle for the public's attention in the sea of competing needs?
The Fairtrade mark is successful at identifying a set of values ("poverty alleviation and sustainable development") and 'green' has almost universal branding status as an indicator of environmental concern. The recent coverage of Paralympic branding, however, raises the bar for the achievement of positive market impact in a sector dedicated to marginalised groups. This was partly because greater understanding and use of the Paralympic brand was one of the International Paralympics Committee's strategic goals.
This was not without contention: some, including the disability charity Scope, see its effect on perceptions of disability as highly positive, but there are also fears about raising unrealistic expectations or the establishment of a new kind of elitism, or that the glorification of high achievement by disabled people is just denial in another guise. Research shows that associating positive images with need has always been risky for charities.
But the public appeared to respond to the Olympics and the Paralympics in identical fashion. In the process, the images of disability became more familiar and a process of more equal access was strengthened.
Other sectors - from fashion and cars to energy - are heavily engaged in building ethical and social responsibility branding, and the closely associated halal branding is also generating new markets. In the public mind, images of charities have never been clear and have included the misconception that everything is done by volunteers and the notion that beneficiaries are always helpless.
Building a positive and value-oriented umbrella sector brand might be a way to help it stand out from the crowd when times are tough and the boundaries between state, commercial and social enterprise are becoming more fluid. It could be used by all sector organisations, from the major arts institutions to the smallest local charities, raising awareness and generating enthusiasm.
Cathy Pharoah is professor of charity funding at Cass Business School