Russell Hargrave: The lessons to be learned from Paul Nuttall's woes

People hold strong views about what charities should and shouldn't do. Ignore these at your peril

Russell Hargrave
Russell Hargrave

Everyone is having a good laugh at Paul Nuttall.

In the full glare of by-election publicity, the new UKIP leader has been caught in a series of fibs: about his PhD (he doesn’t have one); about where he lives (not, it seems, where he says); and, most damningly, about close friends he falsely claimed had died at the 1989 Hillsborough tragedy.

Nuttall is learning a hard truth. The British press and public hold strong ideas about what politicians should and shouldn’t do. Both are extremely tough on people seen to break that understanding.

Charities have been forced to learn the same lesson in recent times. The larger the gap between what people think you should do and what people actually see you doing, the more trouble you face.

This may not sound fair – after all, charities haven’t always decided on which criteria to be judged by the public.

Tough. It isn’t fair. But it is the world the voluntary sector must deal with.

A few years back, I helped work on fresh polling data looking at precisely what people thought about charities.

People were asked to rate from 1 to 10 how much they trusted charities, about how they made decisions about donations and volunteering, and how they thought voluntary groups compared with businesses.

The most interesting bit, though, came at the end, where respondents were given an empty box in which to share any other thoughts they had.

To my pleasant surprise, this wasn’t full of bile and naughty words. It was quite thoughtful stuff.

The public had a very clear idea of what the third sector should not be. People didn’t like charities that were too big (not that they defined the "right" size), nor those that paid staff too much (the phrase "fat cat" recurred here, predictably). There was special frustration at organisations chasing money too aggressively.

A clear theme emerged. Charities were held to a particular standard. The public image of charities was that they were small, local and, well, doing good. The further organisations were seen to move from this ideal, the grumpier the response.

Charities don’t need to stay artificially small, or refuse to test the boundaries of what people will accept from them. But there are things they can do, individually and collectively, to look after the sector’s reputation.

This throws into sharp focus one of those concepts charity comms teams love, and which I suspect everyone else groans at: branding.

As an excellent former colleague of mine used to point out, branding is really about trust. People need to understand what you stand for, and they need to trust that you will honour this.

This isn’t about flattening everything to a soulless soundbite or obsessing over whose logo goes first on a web page. It means knowing what your charity is there to do, doing it and being seen to do it, as seamlessly as possible.

Your comms team are your friends in this venture. Good branding isn’t about checking that a report is decked out in the right colours and fonts just before publication (although that matters, too). It means the communications team working intimately with colleagues at every stage of that report, from planning its content to the advocacy strategy that accompanies it.

As for the sector working collectively – well, imagine if the biggest charities had got together in the aftermath of the first negative stories about fundraising and decided on radically addressing the problem. Imagine if they had revised how contact lists were shared, junked some of the agency contracts and said that recent excesses didn’t align with the values charities stand for.

Imagine dealing with a problem that still drip-drips into the public consciousness.

Sounds like hard work? Again, tough.

Get this right, and people will know what to expect from charities and what values they hold, and they will recognise these in the things they see charities do.

Get it wrong? You might yet end up resembling Paul Nuttall.

Russell Hargrave is press manager at the independent trust Power to Change

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