Communications: Are you being heard? Part Three - How we see ourselves

Misconceptions about the voluntary sector are legion, so it is crucial that staff know what their charity does and why. Patrick McCurry reports.

Staff conferences can so easily dissolve into fluffy team-building games or exercises in self-congratulation and navel-gazing. But the Blue Cross's annual managers' conference last December dared to be different.

Rather than simply looking at the charity's internal issues, the event, called 'The other end of the telescope', was all about public perceptions of the voluntary sector.

"We wanted to get across to our staff the importance of the way they communicate our work to the public, whether they are people who visit our centres, supporters or friends," says Tony Samuel, marketing and fundraising director at the charity.

The 80 managers who attended the event took the idea back to the charity's 330 staff across the country. One of the messages the conference got across was a dilemma many modern professional charities face, says Samuel: "The public has high expectations of us, but at the same time expects us to provide our services without paid staff."

Tackling this view is a challenge, but one the charity must grapple with, he believes. Part of the Blue Cross's strategy is to make sure its staff are well informed about how the charity is run and are able to respond to some of the public's questions.

Across the sector, the kind of messages that staff may need to get across range from general topics, such as why charities invest in fundraising or have administration costs, to issues related to the individual charity, such as how its work directly affects people's lives or how the organisation keeps costs to a minimum. "The public still sees charities largely as well-meaning but wasteful," says Adrian Sargeant, the UK's only professor of non-profit marketing and fundraising.

Elaine Ingram, marketing manager at Arthritis Research Campaign, knows from experience how pervasive the myths can be: "I often meet people who think that if you're raising money for a charity, you shouldn't be paid - I think that goes back to the days when middle-aged women did it as a pastime."

Many charity staff come into contact with existing and new supporters every day, so they are in a unique position to correct misconceptions - but only if they are well-informed themselves.

"We want to encourage internal communication to fundraisers, communications staff, senior managers, customer-facing staff and trustees on what fundraising is, how charities do it and the key messages we need to get across," says Alan Gosschalk, chair of the ImpACT Coalition, which aims to raise public understanding of charities. "If a particular employee doesn't know the answer to a question, they need to know who to go to for the answer."

The launch of self-regulation of fundraising in October, which will require member charities to sign up to the Institute of Fundraising's codes of conduct, will led to greater awareness of trust and accountability issues among fundraising departments, says Gosschalk. "The trustees of the charity will have to sign up to these codes, and that will lead to more consideration of this issue," he explains.

Fundraising staff who have gone through the Institute of Fundraising's certificate should already know about most of the trust and confidence issues in fundraising, adds Adrian Sargeant, the man behind the website charityfacts.org, which aims to promote better understanding of fundraising.

But the issue is not just about fundraisers - in an ideal world, all staff, from finance officer to receptionist, would be well versed in the issues. It is an ideal that the sector is far from achieving at the moment, according to Sargeant. In his experience, there is only limited awareness in the sector of the need to ensure staff outside the fundraising and communications departments are well-informed. "Induction would be the obvious place to do it because that's when new staff are learning about the organisation," he says.

Aidan Timlin, corporate performance and accountability manager at Christian Aid, agrees. "We have an orientation course for new staff, which explains how we work and how we're accountable to different stakeholders," he says.

Christian Aid is also in the process of developing a new 'open information' policy, which will spell out the kind of information the public can access about the charity's workings. "That process will also be an opportunity for us to ensure all our staff are singing from the same hymn sheet when it comes to the information they pass on to the public," says Timlin.

Samuel at Blue Cross says one challenge is that many charities are spread across a big geographical area. "It can be hard for us to make sure an employee at our centre in Felixstowe understands what we're doing in other parts of the UK," he says.

After the charity's conference in December, managers fed the message back to their teams. There are other ways of keeping staff up to date too. "We have an internal newsletter, and we make sure our magazine for supporters is delivered to all our staff," says Samuel.

It isn't just paid staff who need to be trained - there is a lot of potential in charities' volunteer networks. "If there could be more training of volunteers in getting charities' messages across, that could have a big impact," says Sargeant. "Many organisations have large volunteer networks, and each of those volunteers has friends and acquaintances they can spread the message to."

Cancer Research UK is one charity that has targeted volunteers in getting its message out to the public. When the charity launched its most recent annual report, it sent staff to discuss the contents with local volunteers.

The initiative allowed the charity to answer some of the commonly asked questions about fundraising and effectiveness, says Amanda Warhaftig, head of strategy at the charity. "It gave our volunteers the tools to answer difficult questions themselves and is something we'll be repeating in the future," she adds.

The advantage for charities of starting with their own staff and volunteers is that it can become an 'inside-out' process, according to Campbell Robb, public policy director at NCVO. "If you start with your own staff and then move on to supporters, you're dealing with people who are generally predisposed to have a positive view," he argues. "After that we can look at the broader public."

He believes charity shops are a good place to base such training. "Many charities have shops in which there is one paid member of staff and several volunteers," he says. "So they can send materials on the charity's activities to the employee, who can go through it with the volunteers."

John Grounds, director of communications for the NSPCC, says that part of his organisation's fundraising training covers the key messages of the charity. These messages are also discussed with the agencies that produce fundraising materials for the organisation. He says: "They cover topics such as how we use donations carefully, the fact that we're regulated, that we adhere to certain standards and that we have to spend money to raise money."

The next feature in the series, on how to communicate with donors, will be published on 3 May.

WHAT YOUR STAFF NEED TO KNOW

How do charities make a difference?

They often work with groups that government can't or won't work with, and come up with innovative ways to tackle problems. Because they have to raise the money to do this work themselves, they make sure that every penny they spend counts.

How does your charity make a difference?

Every charity needs to be able to clearly communicate its work and what it achieves. For example:

Why do charities spend money on fundraising?

The demands on the charity sector continue to grow, as does the number of charities, which means it is getting harder to raise money. If charities spend some of the money from current donations on investing in professional, imaginative and efficient fundraising for the future, they can become strong organisations able to carry out and even expand their work in the longer term. It is hard to generalise about how much charities should spend on fundraising because much will depend on the cause, with charities in less 'popular' causes having to invest more in getting donations.

Why does your charity spend money on fundraising?

Every charity needs to be able to explain why its fundraising is cost-effective and important.

For example:

- For every pound we spend on fundraising, we earn another pounds XX to spend on cancer research, tackling child abuse or campaigning against global warming

- We use professional staff to help us raise more money, so that we can really make a difference in our work

- For every pound you donate, XXp goes on housing the homeless/rehabilitating young offenders/improving mental health.

How efficient are charities?

Charities are always working to keep costs down and spend donors' money wisely. Charities save money in hundreds of ways, and volunteers help their work go even further. But charities do need to invest in administration, which generally refers to the operational costs of the work they do. Because charities are often working with disadvantaged groups and complex problems, they need to pay for qualified staff, offices and other services such as IT.

If charities are able to invest in good administrative infrastructure, they can become more efficient in the long run and thus make better use of donations. Investing in basic infrastructure also allows charities to track how their money is being spent, so they can be sure they are being effective. According to experts, it is wise for charities to invest between 5 and 15 per cent of their income in good management and administration.

How efficient is your charity?

Charities should be able to challenge perceptions of wastefulness by reminding people that charity trustees are unpaid and referring to policies that keep costs down.

For example:

Are charities regulated?

Charities are regulated by the Charity Commission in England and Wales and the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator in Scotland, and in some cases by Companies House. Certain fundraising activities are regulated by the Financial Services Authority, Ofcom and other agencies. On face-to-face fundraising, charities regulate themselves through the Public Fundraising Regulatory Association.

How is your charity regulated?

Charities should be able to communicate to stakeholders some of the ways in which they are accountable.

For example:

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