Matthew Sherrington: They thought spin was all over - it is now

Election reflections for charity communications

Matthew Sherrington
Matthew Sherrington

So what the hell happened in the election, apart from the bleedin’ obvious? (The Tories won most votes and seats, but lost the battle of expectations; Labour won the battle of expectations, but lost the vote.)

What we witnessed were two dramatically different campaigns that contained lessons for charities and how they manage their brands and engage the public and supporters.

On the one hand, we had the cautious sterility of an overly stage-managed campaign, with vacuous sloganeering urging us to put our trust in the leader, and little substance. In the words of President Underwood on the eve of the election in this season’s House of Cards: "The people don’t know what’s good for them. I do."

That could have been Theresa May talking, wanting a mandate for whatever she thought best, but without deigning to share with us what that might be. It could have been the Parliamentary Labour Party, scared the public wouldn’t buy the bitter pill they perceived Corbyn represented unless it was sugar-coated and sold as something else. Great examples of the patrician tendency of the establishment, taking the people for granted.

And on the other hand, we had the infectious enthusiasm behind a populist campaign, perceived by many to be amateurish in its failure to grasp basic comms and presentational discipline, but, it turns out, attractive to equally many for its authenticity and grass-roots participation. It had an alternative manifesto but, more importantly, a huge dose of positive spirit, of being part of something (for those in the know who got it and felt it, of course). And it was a rejection of the manufactured, controlled, carefully packaged and disingenuous politics of the past.

What this has reminded me of is one of the biggest fault lines in our sector with which charities are struggling to come to terms: Professionalism versus Voluntarism. A former charities minister once suggested that the professionalisation of charities was responsible for alienating volunteers and contributing to a growing disconnection between charities and the public. Worse, that charities liked the language of professionalism and being businesslike because they didn’t want to be thought of as volunteer amateurs.

Of course, it’s a false dichotomy. Charities have to be effective and good at what they do, but are on the horns of two competing pressures when it comes to perceptions and audiences. On the one horn, the sector's growing involvement with (and dependency on) service delivery grants means they have had to tell a story about quality, cost-effectiveness and efficiency in order to win competitive tenders for contracts. On the other horn is the common public perception that charities are – or should be – voluntary, and that any expenditure on salaries, fundraising or admin constitutes waste.

Throw in a common private sector view that charities are amateurs just waiting for the gift of private know-how, and regulator and watchdog initiatives on measuring impact and fundraising ratios, and it's no surprise that you have charities telling a story about how effective they are, how good they are and, yes, how professional they are.

And, overly anxious to present well, what they lose is their heart. I’ve had the chance recently to work with a few founder-led charities, and it’s been refreshing. Founders so often set the tone with their drive and passion. Staff commitment is high. Founder's syndrome gives founders a bad name. Charities make a huge mistake if they can’t work out how to bottle that founding drive and set of values, and lock it into a lasting DNA, because that enthusiastic spirit and authenticity are infectious.

So it’s not professionalism that puts people off, but corporatism: the cautious, slick, sterile spin that keeps people disengaged and at arm’s length. Which brings us to the other lesson of the election campaign: a story about you, the organisation, "help us to help others, trust us and leave it to us", turns people off. When your story is more "let us help you help others", offering people the chance to feel involved, be part of something and feel they are making the difference – well, that can be exciting.

People give time and money to the causes they care about, not to organisations. Supporters are motivated by being part of something. We need less corporate-speak in the sector and more leaders speaking from the heart. It’s not your professional creds you need to burnish, but your authentic spirit.

Matthew Sherrington is an independent charity consultant at Inspiring Action. @m_sherrington

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