Communications: Creative media - No risk, please - we're charities

Having judged the charity category for the Direct Marketing Association awards last month, I was disappointed, but not surprised, to see little evidence of risk-taking, even among the more creative entries.

Charities are dominated more by the fear of what could go wrong than they are by positive thinking and potential opportunities. Several years ago one charity, which I won't name, was presented with a massive money-making opportunity with Asda. There were no outgoing costs and it was a sure earner, but it was risky. The board of trustees was so afraid that it might lead to a few letters of complaint that a potential windfall of thousands of pounds was turned down.

Wind of change

Charities have never been at the edge of change in marketing terms - being brave and different is low on the agenda. The prevailing view is that it's safer to resort to formulaic approaches with no imagination than to experiment with new approaches. Even if you are brave, the chances are that you will be restricted by internal politics and a board of retired professionals that tends to be over-cautious and sees problems rather than opportunities.

Fortunately, there are exceptions. In 2002, Traidcraft offered members of the public the chance to buy shares in its trading arm, Traidcraft plc. The launch took place in the City under the slogan 'Instead of making a killing, help someone make a living'. It was high-risk approach, but it worked and generated £3.25m.

Oxfam, fpa and Shelter are just a few of the charities that have also benefited from not being afraid of rewriting the rules. Shelter hijacked the Ideal Home show in 2004 to turn the spotlight onto poor housing conditions in the UK. Fpa gave the chalk-drawn Cerne Abbas Giant in Dorset a mock condom in an effort to promote safe sex, and Oxfam herded goats through London to promote its virtual gifts catalogue. They all know how to stand out and be counted - and in a competitive market, that matters more.

At a time when the rules are just not working, you have to change. The consumer is a different animal and marketing is a different beast.

Charities have to rise to the challenge and be more imaginative with their contact strategies, more creative in their approaches and more emotionally engaging. They must think as much about the brand as about shaking the tin.

If you aren't changing in a changing world, you'll get left behind. It's time to be brave, to experiment and to explore. If you stick your neck out you are more likely to get it cast in bronze than cut off. Chris Arnold, executive creative director of marketing agency Blac

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