Stephen Pidgeon: It's competition that makes a winner

Fundraising is the only communications channel common to all charities, says our columnist

Stephen Pidgeon, chair, Tangible
Stephen Pidgeon, chair, Tangible

Competition is here to stay, says a new report from the excellent nfpSynergy stable: "We can either accept this new reality and work out ways to develop a superior performance, or we can hope life will somehow return to a previous golden era."

In this precise analysis of competition in the non-profit sector, called It's Competition, But Not as We Know It, the notion of competition is embraced, indeed recommended, as the only way forward.

The report looks at how charities gain, maintain and measure competitive advantage, all the time aware that the terms used (brand, competition, differentiation and so on) are still anathema to many in the sector.

It's an excellent report, but it doesn't tackle an issue that has long dogged communications in our sector, which is the varying roles of fundraising, communication and brand.

I rejoice as charities combine these three functions under one directorship, though I know that 10 years ago they were separated at huge cost and in another 10 years it will be done again.

There is no 'sector view', so charities bend to the whim of earnest folk who blithely apply commercial communications strategies.

My view is clear: there is only one communications function common to all charities - the requirement to raise money through fundraising.

Some charities, though very few, have additional communications tasks.

Macmillan Cancer Support or Diabetes UK, for instance, must find new clients who need their services. And organisations such as Amnesty International, Greenpeace or WWF have political messages that need mass communication support.

But that's it - three consumer communications functions only: fundraising, finding clients and proselytising. And the last two are confined to very few charities.

There are other communications tasks, of course, lobbying government being an important one, but these require no consumer communication.

What, then, is the function of a communications department separate from fundraising? It claims responsibility for brand awareness.

But the sole function of awareness is fundraising. So if you want to raise more money, don't invest to increase brand awareness - invest directly in fundraising and that will take care of brand awareness.

A separate communications department often does nothing to help fundraising. Indeed, it has led to some disastrous 'brand reviews' that harm good fundraising.

Stephen Pidgeon is chair of Tangible Response and of the Institute of Fundraising's standards committee


FACT FILE: Vital competition strategies

-In January, nfpSynergy asked charities which three of a list of strategies were most important for maintaining a competitive advantage and compared the results with those from 1994. The biggest change was "high level of public awareness" - a drop from a 37 per cent vote and top performer in 1994 to 16 per cent.

-Going in the other direction were two key strengths: "strong beliefs and values", up 17 points to 35 per cent, and "keeping close to the needs of stakeholders", up 12 points.

-But the factor giving the most competitive advantage (up 16 percentage points to 49 per cent in 1994) was the "ability to demonstrate success and achievement".

-Variations emerged when the results were split by size: middle-sized charities (£500k-£5m) particularly supported the idea of demonstrating achievement (57 per cent).

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