Matthew Sherrington: It's essential to wear your heart on your sleeve

People want to see, feel and experience the difference your charity makes, says the leadership and communications consultant

One of the things fundraisers have long struggled with is their charity’s discomfort with emotion; the suggestion that emotion means dumbing down, isn’t serious or credible. It happens everywhere.

And that discomfort has censored so much supporter-facing communication over the years that many newer fundraisers don’t even know it matters. If you were to attend a fundraising conference (which if you’re not a fundraiser you’re unlikely to do, but which as a chief executive or comms professional you might find really valuable), you’d find session after session of experienced fundraisers exhorting the next generation to tap into emotion.

Emotion, and the simplicity of a message, are sometimes disdained by other colleagues as patronising to the audience. It is anything but – it shows respect, meeting people, connecting and engaging, where they are.

It’s not just "what works" in fundraising. It’s fundamentally how we all respond to events and make decisions. It’s how we’re hard-wired. And a lot of charity communicators still don’t want to understand that, and resist. A lot of charity communications still labour under the impression that people need to know about what they have to say; that if only they understood …; that an overload of rational information and fact will win the day. 

Well, you only need to look at the Brexit debate to know that’s nonsense. Leavers had no plan so they had no facts, just the emotional power of identity and control. Remainers had the economic facts (some less credible than others, let’s be frank), but couldn’t muster any emotional enthusiasm for the EU, cloaked as it was with caveats of necessary reform. 

Or look at the substance and tone of presidential (let’s just say Republican for now) debate in the US right now. The facts be damned. It’s all been raging rhetoric, all about how you feel, and your sense of identity.

When George W Bush was President, the Democrats were at their wits’ end.  They had all the arguments, but were failing to be heard. The book What’s the Matter with Kansas? examined with dumb-founded humour why it was that the poorest state in the US was also the most Republican; people consistently electing politicians hell-bent of acting against their economic interests with policies that made them poorer.

The answer was summed up in the idea that people could imagine having a barbeque and beer with cowboy George Bush, but not doing small talk with windsurfing John Kerry. What they said didn’t matter. How people felt about them did, the feeling that they had more in common. Democrats started to learn about ‘framing’, which the Republicans had been doing for years. Which is all about tapping into people’s emotional frames of reference. What they care about. What they identify with. Not just the issues but the values through which they relate to those issues. Along came change and hope. Bingo.

But will that prevail? Fear trumped hope in the Scottish referendum, and fear and loathing seem to be the emotions of the moment.

That charities often suffer the same delusion that facts win out over feelings, results from a failure to understand what makes people tick and what they care about, and then a failure of leadership. It’s this failure that leads the charity sector to explain admin and overheads, rather than understanding the question comes from people not having a feeling – reassurance, confidence, trust, whatever for the difference being made.

It’s in the way programme and policy colleagues can be dismissive of carefully crafted communications for being superficial, offering instead impenetrable language pulled direct from the latest strategic plan or policy paper. Anyone can write, right?

Accountability culture doesn’t actually help, and that’s not necessarily the charity’s fault, but it does take discipline to break through it. Internal reporting is geared to financial control and funder accountability, so inevitably focuses on money, activities and outputs.

Facts, facts, facts. Rarely a human, emotional story in sight. People want to see, feel and experience the difference to trust you, not be expected to trust you because you demonstrate you’re transparent and accountable.

There are actually some charity leaders who are brilliant at this, who can convey the essence of their cause and mission with simplicity, and with raw, emotional power. Who can tell a good story, wear their heart on their sleeve and aren’t embarrassed to do so. They set a great example. To get their organisation’s culture to follow and embrace emotion is the new communications frontier.

Matthew Sherrington is a charity leadership and communications consultant at Inspiring Action. @m_sherrington

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