Richard Kramer: Does your charity do what it says on the tin?

The recent pressure on the NHS has reopened the debate on whether charities should try to explain the complex, sometimes unfashionable social problems they address to supporters, writes the deputy chief executive of Sense

Richard Kramer
Richard Kramer

In recent weeks, the news has been dominated by stories of A&E waiting times and pressure on the NHS. Pledges of additional funding and claims to be the only party that can tackle the problem are rife. But there is another side to the problem, which is the lack of funding for social care, which has crept into only some of the media coverage and government debate on the issue. 

Unlike the NHS, social care is not used by everyone during their lifetimes. The fact that a growing number of people need more sustained care and support, such as those with disabilities and mental health needs, is not always easy for the public to understand. In addition, regular users of social care are often not willing or able to articulate their needs, or to place demands on politicians.

Getting this message across is a struggle for many charities working in this area, and the stories this week made me reflect on the challenges of communicating a complex message.

The work of many charities doesn’t reflect exactly "what it says on the tin", because some aspects of the cause are difficult to explain to potential donors and the public at large. For example, at Sense we support people who are deafblind or have sensory impairments. How deafblind people communicate (this can range from sign language to finger spelling on someone’s palm) and the difficulties that people face being without multiple senses can be a difficult story to tell. Equally rare syndromes and mental health conditions are also complex to explain because they are multi-faceted.

People who are the furthest removed from society and the most disengaged from support services are often those with the most complex needs. And of course, the more complex a person’s needs the harder it is to fundraise for them – despite the fact that they are the ones who would benefit the most from this support.

If you support people with multiple needs, such as those with mental health and drug problems, it is pretty tough to get out there, sell your charity and get your fundraising messages across. That’s probably why you don’t see many alcohol charities raising money through street collections or applying for charity of the year awards.

Some charities that aren’t particularly sexy are always going to find it hard to find funding. So how do you square a simple appeal to donors or the general public when your beneficiaries don’t fit into neat boxes and are complex and difficult to categorise?

The strength of the third sector is that there are organisations highlighting these complex issues and the people or groups that often get left behind. If we avoid telling these stories and simplify our message too much, we risk no longer representing those we exist to support and becoming too generic.

There is strength in diversifying, but we shouldn’t risk spreading ourselves too thinly. Language might need changing and funding strategies might need to be revised to fit in with the current climate, but ultimately our cause and the people we support must remain at the heart of our work.

Telling these more detailed stories will always be a challenge, and I believe it’s something the sector does well. The charities that succeed are usually armed with inspiring projects and strong case studies from people willing to speak out about the importance of receiving support.

If you can demonstrate clearly how your organisation makes a difference to your beneficiaries, having a complex story to tell is an asset and not something to be afraid of.

Richard Kramer is deputy chief executive of the deafblind charity Sense

This article was originally published on the Third Sector blog

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