Charities should think like businesses

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Everyone calls the lead up to Christmas the silly season but I reckon it’s the period after that’s even sillier. The period where we feel we need to atone for our gluttony throughout December by making ridiculous resolutions like vowing never to drink or eat carbs again and to do at least one good deed a day to help make the world a better place.

And doesn’t the world of marketing know it. On January 1, right on cue, come the ads to lure our mince-pie filled bottoms to the gym, and the unforgiveable workout DVDs from B-grade celebrities who promise that “you too can go from flab to fab”.

Hand in hand with those come the ads for various charities, in an attempt to tap into our post-binge guilty consciences. Ones that try to appeal to your humane side by showing you children in Africa who don’t have clean water to drink, or teenagers in London without a bed to sleep in.

Admittedly these ads make for uncomfortable viewing but those of us warm in our heated living rooms quickly learn to zone them out. Just as we learn to blank out the “chuggers” that are also rife on the street at this time of year intent on catching us as we hurry to the tube in rush hour.

But how much longer can this kind of marketing bring in the revenues that the country’s charities so desperately need? If 2011 will be the year that charities really have to fight for survival in an ever-fragile economic climate, they need to become more commercially savvy, and this means recruiting more corporate minded marketing directors who understand the value of marketing towards growing a bottom line.

This will be the harsh truth of this year as consumer’s wallets are stretched even further, even though we didn’t think it possible. An extra £5 a month for train tickets, £10 a month extra for gym membership, a few pounds extra for groceries – charities are going to find it harder to justify consumers’ attention and are going to have to become more clever, ruthless, and ROI aligned when it comes to their marketing strategies.

The top reason for ceasing donations is being unable to afford it (45%, down from 51% in 2009), according to a new study from fast.MAP.

So charities need to think more like brands. Help Agency’s Dean Hodgetts, setting up last year, told me that there are many charities who just don’t see themselves as brands. This is why they allow the practice of chuggers to go on – it might damage the brand because more people find it a nuisance than not, but it brings in donations, so it works.

Charities need to treat their donors as consumers who want to know what they will get for their spend. What will their £5 donation “buy” them?

Some charities have cottoned onto this new consumer mindset by using their marketing, whether it’s on TV, online or in the post, to clearly illustrate, amount by amount, what individual donations can achieve, so the donor themselves also feels this sense of achievement with their contribution.

Last year, I wrote about the VSO, which uses a scheme of ’virtual volunteer sponsorship’ where a donor can sponsor a volunteer in the field whose blogs they can follow. Meanwhile, homeless charity Crisis in 2009 launched an ’Urban Investors programme’ encouraging donations of at least £1,200 which are then treated as “stock portfolios” with regular updates to the donor on the return on investment.

While your average person might not have £1,200 spare, what Crisis has hit on is the element of regular updates allowing people to see what their personal input has achieved. More charities would become closer to attaining this heightened level of engagement if they could allow donors to choose a specific project that their money could go towards and feel personally attached to the success of.

As my colleague Michael Barnett writes in this week’s trends feature on charity donation attitudes, the most popular reason for supporting a charity is media coverage of a disaster – not only because of the sense of urgency, but because the need is specific, and the resolution is obvious.

In a truly ironic move, the same government that will be cutting charity grants just after Christmas suggested plans to help increase public donations, such as the option to donate at a cash machine, or adding a prompt to the bottom of forms that people fill in.

This is clever in the sense that it is practical, and much less intrusive than an annoyingly smiley person trying to stop you while you are on your lunch break.

But just like those emotionally-charged TV ads, it will be easy to press no when you are in a hurry to quickly withdraw £20.

Charities need less gimmicks and more old fashioned results driven brand building taken from the textbooks of their corporate counterparts.

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