Max du Bois: Is playing it safe the riskiest thing a charity can do?

Your charity should stand for something if you want people to rally to the cause, writes our columnist

Max du Bois
Max du Bois

Creating compelling emotional engagement should be second nature to charities, and yet, according to our recent analysis based on research carried out with 50 of the top 100 UK charities, most use value statements that are generic, bland and undifferentiating.

Playing it safe with generic values, confusing them with internal behaviours and not being bold enough are the key traps organisations fall into in their bid to re-assert trust and credibility.

It is worth taking a closer look at why so many charities are losing focus on their values.

One key reason appears to be the high level of trading that occurs between the third sector and the corporate sector. Both seem to have swapped their language, much to the detriment of many charities. The corporate sector has started focusing on passion and heart, whereas the charity sector is aiming to sound more effective and business-like. Where the corporate sector is focusing on the value of doing good, charities are aiming to be seen as more professional, talking about impact, returns and investment.

As a result many charities have unwittingly allowed their positions to erode.

Playing it safe might appear to be the safest route, yet in reality it could turn out to be the most damaging. Charities and not-for-profit organisations are naturally sensitive to risk, particularly reputational risk, but they need to recognise that the only risk in this current climate is standing still. As the sector is disrupted by technology, increasing competition and changing donor behaviour, it’s the actions they take that break through and deliver impact.

Here are four of the best acid-test indicators to ensure a charity brand is firing on all its cylinders and using the full potential of its authentic values.

Lose the generic ‘table-stake’ values

Table stakes are those values that are shared across a sector. They are expected and assumed by all but are often considered "things that we should probably say".

The main problem with using a table stake as one of your values is that you end up stating the obvious or telling people what they already know. In the private sector the most common table-stake values are professional and dynamic. So what table stakes did we find in the charity sector? Some of the worst offenders, which sound less than confident and more like pleas for help, were "honest" (10 percent of the charities researched), "passionate" (25 per cent) and "committed" (25 per cent).

These values are almost universal in the third sector; it’s like stating that you are "altruistic". You might know a few organisations that lack these qualities in your area, but the chances are they will claim they have them anyway.

The bare minimum to aim for when choosing and expressing your values is not to waste your audience’s time by simply telling them what type of organisation they can expect to find in the charity sector. What’s more, it can arouse suspicion: "Why do you feel the need to say you’re honest?!"

Distinguish between values and behaviours

Almost 35 per cent of the charities we looked at showed evidence of confusing "values" and "behaviours". The simple rule is this: don’t tell me you’re funny; make me laugh! In other words, demonstrate you are professional, inclusive, transparent and so on, and use your values statement for something really engaging and differentiating.

This is understandable, because values, which are external communications tools, and behaviours, which are internal management tools, have similar-sounding, positive, meaning-laden vocabularies.

Using "respect" (28 per cent) and "effective" (16 per cent) are examples of this.

However, the key difference is that behaviours are the standards you operate to and values are the principles behind your actions. When these two get confused, a crucial opportunity to engage and connect is lost. In the worst examples we found values statements that read like the internal strategy documents they were probably copied and pasted from!.

Your values should be about why you do what you do. They’re an opportunity to connect by saying what drives you, what you believe and what are you not prepared to tolerate. They are not an occasion to talk about your equal opportunities policy or customer focus.

Be brave

In addition to those relying on generic table stakes and standard internal behaviours, 28 per cent of the charities we looked at did not explicitly talk about their values at all. Now, if their values shine through strong copy and engaging branding, that’s one thing, but if it is a deliberate attempt not to alienate or offend then it is a serious misjudgement.

All charities are expected to have core beliefs and want to see a change in the world. More than a third of the charities we researched cited "equality" as one of their key values, so they should really be upsetting someone somewhere because, if not, they aren’t fighting the vested interests that perpetuate inequality.

So what to do? If playing it safe will leave you drowned out, indistinct and un-engaging does that mean you have to be "dangerous"? No, not dangerous and certainly not reckless, but bold, ambitious, leading and real.

Draw your values out from the organisation and tell them well. Tell people who you are and why it matters that you exist. If you don’t take a stand for something, you might as well not stand for anything. By trying to please everyone and playing it safe, you could risk not getting through to anyone.

Get past the obvious

Remember, in a crowded market, people will listen to you and give you time and money when they care about your cause and share the values that drive your approach.

Don’t waste the opportunity to use value statements to say something really engaging and differentiating.

When emotional engagement is the goal, lead with the "why" rather than the "what" or "how".

Talk with people who care and tell them how your values drive your approach.

The solution is not to make something up; if you can’t find anything genuine, be prepared to fundamentally change who you are.

The objective is to identify the truth of what you stand for, then tell it well.

Your values are about why you do what you do. Values are about the principles that drive you.

Stand for something, cause a reaction, get past the obvious and taken for granted, remember who you represent and find something genuine, then people will rally to your cause, give you the funds you need and make you the change-maker you were conceived to be.

Max du Bois is executive director of charity brand experts at Spencer du Bois 

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