Expert view: Marketing needs to be measured

A huge amount is spent on charity PR and advertising without anyone in the industry knowing whether it actually works.

The Voluntary Action Media Unit recently created Volunteer Genie , a website that is designed to show how the media can be used to recruit volunteers. Lots of organisations are proud of their work, and the website is full of excellent case studies. But when we asked how many people volunteered as a result of charities' efforts, most organisations had no idea. They had heard that calls to their volunteer managers had increased, but had no hard data.

It is not easy to measure the effect of any media campaign, especially with limited resources. It's even more difficult for charities with regional branches. A national advertisement campaign asking for volunteers might prompt people to call local branches. The priority of local staff in such circumstances is to persuade potential volunteers to become actual volunteers - not to ask too many questions.

But no campaign is impossible to track. If all charity staff ask every volunteer what prompted them to get in touch, and the results are analysed, it is possible to judge whether recruitment drives have worked.

Fundraisers lead the field in assessing the effectiveness of their marketing. All requests for donations are coded so that, when forms are returned, the effectiveness of each advertisement or mail-out can be tested.

However, in measuring volunteer recruitment campaigns, the public sector puts the voluntary sector to shame with its methods and rigour.

For example, the Home Office set out to recruit thousands of special constables at the beginning of last year. It used TV and radio advertisements, national and regional press and online banner advertisements.

To evaluate the campaign, a website was created and a phone number was set up for all potential recruits attracted by the campaign.

The number of phone calls and contacts was logged every day and this tracking showed what worked best: local case studies and pictures were powerful, but TV and radio adverts worked only in combination with press and online. The campaign was really successful and the Home Office let us publish all the results on the Volunteer Genie website.

This has important implications for the voluntary sector. Charity PR and advertising use hard-won donations and grant money - real money that could be spent on other things. If charities don't use modern methods to prove their marketing works, the sector will forever be seen as amateur, and communications staff will find it hard to justify their jobs and budgets.

- Penelope Gibbs is a campaign director for the Prison Reform Trust

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