Vicky Browning took over as director of CharityComms, the body for charity communications professionals, in March 2010, when communications departments across the sector were suffering under widespread cuts.
More than two years on, communications teams continue to be squeezed. But Browning says that it's not all doom and gloom. "Charities are becoming more resourceful as a result of the cuts," she says. "Some are actually seeing growth as a result of the recession, but it's always a temptation for them to see comms as a soft target."
In an effort to reduce costs, some charities have merged the roles of heads of communications and fundraising. Browning is sanguine about fundraisers finding their way into communications. "Anything that prevents 'silo working' in a charity is a good thing, so I don't worry about that," she says. "In fact, I celebrate it."
For many charities, getting through the next financial year with their services intact is the highest priority, but Browning insists on the importance of hard-wiring a communications strategy into any organisation.
"If you ask the public to name any charity, they will say Oxfam, the Red Cross or the NSPCC," she says. "These charities invest in comms. They are all household names and their brands are incredibly strong."
All charities want to change the world for the better, but to do that they have to convince people there is a problem, tell them there is a solution and ask for volunteers and help in raising money. Browning believes this is where comms teams can make the difference.
"A lot of charities think comms is just about doing your work, then putting out a press release and getting coverage," she says. "But it's about knowing your audience first and then getting information out there. Otherwise, you toil away in obscurity."
CharityComms, itself a charity with a turnover of £200,000 a year, was set up five years ago to create a network for charity communications specialists. In that time, it has taken over Ask Charity, a website that puts the media in contact with charities, and produced best-practice guides on subjects such as social media.
In January, it launched a campaign calling on the Newspaper Licensing Agency to exempt charities from paying for the right to reproduce news stories and links on their websites. But Browning the NLA is proving a tough nut to crack. "We've been knocked back by the NLA," Browning says. "We contacted newspaper publishers directly, but the NLA told them to hold the line, so we are now looking at other ways to take this forward."
With communications budgets tight, Browning believes that charities under financial pressure will have to think smarter and invest time and thought, rather than money, in communications strategies. "If you have a plan, you can focus on what matters and ignore the rest," she says. "Charities can save a lot of money by using digital communications and recruiting their supporters to get the word out."
Social media should not be regarded as free communications, however. "It takes time and energy to implement, but you can get your volunteers to do that," says Browning. "Telling stories using case studies is cost-effective and powerful. All charities should create them and identify the best channels to use them."
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