Opinion: Third Voice - Neglect communication strategy at your own risk

Cathy Debenham, a marketing communication consultant working with third-sector organisations in Devon and the south west

It was wonderful to see the question of whether the voluntary sector needs a trade body for communicators as a hot issue in Third Sector. But I'd ask a different question: why don't more charities take communication seriously?

Communication is all too often bolted on to the fundraising department.

Look at the job adverts you see for joint directorships of fundraising and communication: examine the job specifications and you'll find they're aimed at fundraisers. With urgent financial targets to meet, bringing the money in is likely to be the director's priority.

Yet communication is fundamentally important. All organisations benefit from getting their brands right and promoting them internally and externally.

Identifying a charity's target audiences, and developing key messages for each, leads to consistency and saves staff time and effort. Investing in internal communication can improve staff performance and morale.

Great communication creates a positive environment. It makes it easier to ask for funds, lobby for change or attract service users. But to be effective, communication staff need a charity-wide remit and to be represented at a senior level. Allegiance to one particular function - fundraising, for example - can skew the message and limit the scope. It can also lead to different areas of an organisation doing their own thing, with no consistent organisational message.

For example, clients who come to me for help with PR often haven't thought about the messages they want to get out. If they supply stories about fundraising rather than service delivery, readers might assume the charity is better off than it is or wonder what difference the money raised makes.

Yet there are charities that take communication seriously and have success stories to prove it, so why is communication the sector's best kept secret?

I don't think there is a simple solution. Although there is room for a trade body for communicators, that's only part of the answer. We need to ask why the sector's communicators aren't lobbying for more recognition.

Why aren't communication issues given space on the conference platforms and in the trade press? Let's use our PR skills to increase awareness of the vital role that communication plays in winning people's hearts and minds and in meeting strategic objectives.

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