Opinion: Credibility has the most clout

Rachel O'Brien, director of external affairs at the Institute for Public Policy Research. Lisa Harker is recovering from an accident

Three charity workers walk into a bar. The researcher tells her colleagues about work she has been doing on the impact of new legislation that extends help to homeless young people.

"The good news," she says, "is that it is working. Twice as many young homeless people are getting the help they need."

"The bad news," says the frontline worker, "is those are the lucky ones. There are many more who aren't aware they can get help."

"Cheers," says the fundraiser, looking pleased. "This is just the kind of information I need for the direct mail campaign I've been struggling with."

A month later, 150,000 members of the public receive a beautifully designed, punchy mail shot: "Youth homelessness figures double!"

I exaggerate. Fundraisers, researchers and frontline workers never drink together. The serious point is to what degree fundraising and communications campaigns should represent the complex issues that lie behind the work of an organisation. Environmental NGOs were last week accused of misrepresenting new research on the impact of climate change. But the issue of how fundraising can skew public perception is more subtle than getting the facts straight, and the need for strong straplines and a simple message can undermine credibility - bad news makes for good copy.

Charities get stuck pushing their crisis work at the expense of more complex, less dramatic issues. This is where Shelter has taken a brave step. For many people, homelessness equals rough sleeping, an issue that still pulls at heart and purse strings. By drawing attention to the more complex issues of bad housing and overcrowding, Shelter has prioritised policy change - the need for more and better social housing. It believes its supporters, the media and the public have the sense to stick with them.

Good fundraising activity should be part and parcel of a good communications strategy. This means being led by what your services and research shows you, prioritising accuracy and credibility, and bringing creative clout to the mix.

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