Mark Flannagan: Super brands are sucking the air out of the charity sector

Huge charities such as CRUK and Macmillan sometimes get in the way of smaller charities that might have more expertise in particular areas, writes our columnist

Mark Flannagan
Mark Flannagan

The world is full of "super brands": Coke, Apple, Amazon, Google. Often a core part of their identity is ethical attitudes, sometimes backed up by behaviour that demonstrates progressive principles. Bill Gates handing over his billions is part of a rich tradition of philanthropic capitalists from Andrew Carnegie onwards. Having gained millions – billions these days – these individuals and companies feel the need to give something back to society. If they can do so credibly and with impact, then the benefit to their brand must be sound business.

Super brands also exist in the charity sector. Cancer Research UK and Macmillan Cancer Support are empires for raising money to do good. Or, alternatively and more positively, they are charities that have grown by tapping successfully, sometimes ruthlessly, into the British tradition of giving for a cause that touches hearts. I cannot deny that I have been envious of these charities with huge brands. Within the charity sector and beyond, there are lessons to be learned about how to harvest a cause, craft a message, deliver an image and engage an audience to bring in income on an exponential scale. The people responsible for this deserve the credit for driving vast sums towards research, care or other charitable services.

But – and you knew there was a but coming – what is the cost of having such charity super brands in the space in which other charities are trying to operate? Is it possible that these huge charities, with their ability to demand attention everywhere and to invest in testing fundraising activities that often don’t have to succeed, are sucking the oxygen out of the room for the others.

Even so-called medium-sized charities, classified as more than £1m income, though here I am referring to those with incomes over £10m, struggle to find space to make an impact and grow their supporter bases. Too often, the space one of these wishes to inhabit is already taken up by one of the super-brand charities. Whether it is a corporate partnership, delivery of support materials or simple television airtime, there is real competition from the bigger names that is stopping potential growth by other equally deserving causes. Without this growth, our sector risks stagnation around a few big names.

In my experience with cancer, it is also true that, when it comes to government, the big two of CRUK and Macmillan usually get the calls for partnership, money being handed out for awareness initiatives and access to the inside track of decision-making. This leaves the other charities in this area having to work harder to be heard and taken seriously, despite actually being more expert in the areas they serve.

I don’t have a problem with the concept of competition in the charity sector. This doesn’t have to mean we do each other down or push each other out of the way. It does mean that we can learn from others. We can sharpen our own activities based on external pressures. Lack of competition can bring complacency, and innovation is built on having to keep your edge against others. I do have a problem with a wall being created around a few choice brands that prevents others getting access when they are probably better suited to the cause. I know from many conversations that those working within the charity sector won’t say this because it can be career-limiting. Well, now I have.

Mark Flannagan (@MarkFlann) is an independent consultant and commentator, and a former charity chief executive

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