Gemma Sherrington interview: 'We need to tell compelling stories'

As she takes on the role of director of fundraising at Save the Children UK, Gemma Sherrington talks to Rebecca Cooney about moving on from last year's scandals and turning around the fall of donations in the international development sector

Gemma Sherrington (Photograph: Colin Stout)

Gemma Sherrington is happy to admit that her recent promotion, which propelled her into the role of executive director of fundraising and marketing at Save the Children UK in March, probably did not come at the easiest time.

It has been a tricky couple of years for the charity. Save the Children’s latest accounts, published in June, showed there had been a fall of £103m in income in the year to 31 December 2018 – largely, the charity said, because several long-running grant programmes had come to an end. And, like many international development organisations, the charity also found itself embroiled in the sexual harassment scandal.

Last year it emerged that its former chief executive, Justin Forsyth, had formally apologised for sending inappropriate text messages to female staff members during his time at the charity. At the same time, media interest in Brendan Cox, the charity’s former policy director, who resigned in 2015 amid allegations of inappropriate behaviour towards women, was reignited by fresh accusations against him.

Despite this, Sherrington – who has been at Save the Children for 11 years – is upbeat about its position this year. And she believes it is within the sector’s power to start dealing with the wider challenges, which go far beyond just one organisation.

"I think we’re seeing a diminishing market for international development as a whole," she says. "This has been triggered by a number of factors. Yes, there have been media issues, but I think it goes back further: over a sustained period of time, through no fault of the fundraisers, organisations have been focused on transactional giving in-year."

Immediate need

This meant that fundraising communications became focused on the existence of "very urgent immediate need" and were designed to induce guilt in donors, she says.

The main problem is that these communications haven’t evolved in that time: "So what the public has perceived of us is the same stories for 10 to 15 years around that urgent need, and for them that prompts the question ‘why is that need still there? Why are you still asking me for money?’"

Sherrington feels this has dented the trust and loyalty donors feel towards international development brands, and this has been exacerbated by charities’ ability to share and replicate each other’s practice.

"We’ve gradually become a very homogeneous, undifferentiated group of organisations within our cause areas," she says. "What that does from a supporter point of view is make it about convenience of choice, not love or loyalty for a cause or brand.

"If you’ve just got all of these people, all looking the same and doing the same thing, and always asking without ever closing the loop on the story, it does affect how people think about impact."

Ultimately, she says, international aid organisations need to ask themselves some tough questions about their purpose and their relevance in today’s world.

"There are probably some really difficult answers, which might include the fact that we’re not all relevant and maybe there should be fewer of us," Sherrington says.

Mergers might be one answer, she says, but brands that offer different messaging, products and core purposes while engaging in other forms of collaboration might be just as effective, without the need for time-consuming reorganisations.

"It’s about working out where you act on points of difference, and where coming together makes you more powerful and engages people more authentically," she says.

There is already a model within the international development sector that illustrates how this approach can be effective, she points out: the Disasters Emergency Committee, a group of 14 aid and humanitarian charities that launch single, unified campaigns after disasters.

Sherrington says she and a group of other heads of fundraising at large international development agencies have been meeting to figure out how they can extend this model of working to address what she calls a "crisis in how people engage with international development", and she’s optimistic it will have results.

There is a wider problem with falling individual donations. Analysis of the most recent accounts of the top 155 charities on the Third Sector Charity Brand Index found that overall fundraising income fell from £5.1bn to £4.8bn last year, and legacy income rose from £1.5bn to £1.6bn. The National Council for Voluntary OrganisationsUK Civil Society Almanac 2019 also found that fundraised income was falling.

Sherrington says the fall in donations has the potential to be cataclysmic. "I think we’ll be shielded from real disaster for a while because a lot of us are seeing some strong performances in legacies, which will probably mask some of the underlying decline," she says. "But I think it is there."

What’s more, she believes that both the international development sector and the wider charity sector are vulnerable to disruption from commercial organisations. Again, charities’ tendency to measure their success year-on-year or against other organisations in the sector hasn’t helped.

Out of the bubble

The first step for the sector, she says, is to step out of its bubble and look at what the commercial sector is doing in terms of the standards it sets for consumer experiences.

"While we’ve been patting ourselves on the back if we’ve had slightly better engagement with a newsletter, say, the commercial sector has completely disrupted customer care and customer experience, and we’ve taken our eye off the ball," she says.

In a world where online grocery shopping baskets can be saved and replicated at the click of a button, she argues, charities’ failure to offer a similar level of service is creating barriers to giving. "Over time, all that will do is create frustration with how supporters engage with us," she says. "I get annoyed now if I’m shopping and I can’t pay in one touch, so having to fill a donation form... you just won’t do it, will you?"

And caring for consumers isn’t the only place the private sector has crept ahead of charities, she says. Commercial organisations are also increasingly getting into the business of doing good. For example, the pharmaceutical company Johnson & Johnson has committed to donating a billion doses of intestinal worms medication to more than 100 million children a year, delivering HIV/Aids therapy access to 130,000 adults and 5,000 children and training 30,000 skilled birth attendants between 2016 and 2020 as part of its Health for Humanity 2020 goals programme.

Others are putting doing good at the core of their businesses. The global sportswear brand Adidas has partnered with the environmental campaign Parley for the Oceans to produce shoes, swimming costumes and football kits made of recycled ocean plastic. And the footwear company Tom’s Shoes pledges to help one person in need for every pair of shoes sold.

Such companies, Sherrington says "are able to engage the public and tell stories around doing good that are so much more compelling than the ones our sector is telling, which is a real shame given the really important causes we’re standing for."

The answer, she says, might once again be collaboration: for charities to actively seek to work with these companies, combining expertise in creating impact and change with resources and better storytelling.

The sector’s focus has to be on model innovation, she says, not just product innovation, and it has to take a more long-term view about what it wants to achieve.

At Save the Children UK, she says, she’s starting by drawing innovation from global companies. Save the Children is a loose network of affiliated charities in different countries, and the different entities are free to operate independently of each other. But, Sherrington says, the organisations are looking at "how we can unlock the global power of our brand", particularly around philanthropy and partnerships.

"Our supporters in that space don’t identify much in a single market any more," she says, because many such donors might be based in the UK but spend considerable amounts of their time in the Middle East or Africa, for example. "We haven’t been set up in a way that would maximise support for them to give in the way they want to give."

What you should see in the future is much more synergy

The organisations are looking at how they can offer such donors a "seamless global experience", such as one might expect from a major company like Apple.

Sherrington is also looking at how Save the Children UK can integrate its fund-raising and marketing more closely. "Our brand advertising currently looks entirely different from our DRTV and other fundraising asks," she says. "What you should see in the future is much more synergy."

Audience insight

The plan is to invest more heavily in brand-awareness spending and less in activation, but to marry up the two so that the output looks more similar, she says. It will be led more by audience insight. As part of that, the charity is exploring ways for different teams to work together more effectively, drawing on the models used in technology development companies.

"In trying to adapt all those things that are happening externally, we find ourselves set up in a way that doesn’t help us achieve what we want to achieve," she says.

"We’ve got a very traditional, product-organised fundraising and marketing team. There’s a lot of friction between product teams, which makes it hard to get things out of the door and to achieve a more integrated marketing and fundraising model.

"We’ve been testing agile, multidisciplinary teams: how we bring people together to address a very specific objective over a specific period of time."

The projects have shown some great results, Sherrington says, but they have pushed the charity’s boundaries too.

"We’ve found it can be really brilliant, but it can be difficult to integrate that kind of methodology into a historic, stable, business-as-usual environment," she says.

"Once you start looking at one area, it instantly begins to spin out into processes, leadership, culture and the whole system."

And she adds: "I want to be honest about it: none of this has been easy."

But faced with so much disruption, the idea that charities could be sheltered from having to make such changes is naive, she says: "I suppose I’m of the mindset that we need to move before it hits us."

But all the soul-searching has come with some added benefits. The charity’s new brand positioning, which will be launched in a campaign this autumn, will focus on ensuring that the charity does not speak for the children and families it works with.

"That has come from us reconnecting with who we are," Sherrington says.

"We were born as a children’s rights organisation, one that works with communities to give them a platform where they can raise their own issues, their own challenges, their own opportunities, their own hopes – all in their own voice."

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