As we start the new year, charities will be thinking about the challenging external context of their work and how best to engage others in their mission.
An understanding of human psychology and cultural mindsets will help charity communicators to shape narratives that influence public perceptions, build a sense of shared responsibility and a willingness to be part of the solution.
Charities and social movements have seen notable successes in recent years after shifting away from traditional policy and influencing to test new ways of opening public discourse.
This includes building momentum from a grassroots level and pulling the levers of power outside Westminster.
Freedom from Torture’s award-winning #StopTheFlights campaign aimed to shift the government’s policy on deportation flights to Rwanda.
The charity felt that directly lobbying the government and challenging the legality of the policy was not sufficient to secure change. Instead it set its focus on dissuading airline companies to take on the contract through the heat of public disapproval.
It worked directly with torture survivors to design and delver the campaign, which included a leadership programme to strengthen the organising and strategy skills of collaborators.
Barney Cullum’s book Making a Movement explores the rise of grassroots movements over the last decade, using sophisticated theories of change to move the dial on intractable issues such as racism, drug laws and abortion rights.
By deprioritising direct advocacy to politicians and focusing on public attitudes they have driven social change at scale, working from the bottom-up rather than top-down, circumventing austerity and the legal restrictions on lobbying.
There are plenty of lessons for charities with high ambitions for social change.
But I am not suggesting that charities should abandon traditional forms of political advocacy, where our persistence and numbers can have local and national impact.
The research agency nfpResearch’s Parliamentary Monitor shows two thirds of the public (65 per cent) agree that campaigning is an important role of charities, and more than half want charities to lobby MPs directly.
But we must consider what methods are best, case by case, to cut through the noise and sway the changes we seek to make.
Just before the end of last year, a report dropped into my inbox that explored the opinions of a small subsection of future charity donors aged between 18 and 50 years old.
Some of the respondents’ challenges were damning. Not only did some feel that businesses were more likely to solve social issues than charities because they have access to more resources and technology, but their perceptions of charities as “old-fashioned”, “cautious” and “uninspiring” and our adverts “pastiche”, “cheesy” and “poor quality” should send shivers through hearts of brand managers and campaigners alike.
Ian MacQuillin, director of the fundraising think tank Rogare, suggests that confirmation bias could be to blame: where participants who expect or remember poor examples of charity communications only recall these.
He further notes that with the rise of social good marketing from businesses, it could be a lack of distinction that is perpetuating this misconception of outdated charity communications.
Reach (meeting people where they are), recall (being memorable), distinctiveness (distinguishing the unique value of the charity sector), and engagement (keeping the public interested in issues) are all vital in nurturing relationships with new supporters and turning over the tide.
As we saw with volunteering spikes during the pandemic, individuals will answer the call to get involved with charities. They just need to be inspired, reminded, and offered flexible ways to contribute.
Audience insight is, therefore, not only the lifeblood of great communication but of forging innovative or reimagined ways of encouraging public involvement in charity causes.
This year also promises a general election, which might shake things up. We need to be at the heart of political decision-making at all levels, as partners and critical friends, no matter the election result.
So, let’s take everything we’ve learned about what works and use it to good effect. Because we know a better future is possible and we can’t do it alone.
Adeela Warley is the chief executive of CharityComms