Solidarity not charity: Why not-for-profits are shifting their marketing focus

A quiet marketing revolution has been happening in the charity sector as organisations look to not just help those in need but empower them.


Brand purpose is under the spotlight like never before as consumers become increasingly critical of businesses looking to ‘do good’ or solve all society’s problems. Consumers are also quick to chastise those which don’t extend their purpose to every aspect of their business or when they feel the brand doesn’t belong in the conversation. You only have to look at Gillette’s attempt to solve toxic masculinity for evidence of that.

This level of scrutiny also extends to charities where a quiet revolution has been occurring in the way the sector portrays individuals. Charities are moving away from a paternalistic approach to one of empowerment in both the services they provide and the way they market themselves.

Oxfam’s head of brand Allys Thomas explains: “There has gradually been more appetite for [images of empowerment] and charities themselves can play a role in driving and shaping that too, so it’s become about how we can challenge and change public discourse as well as respond to it.”

We were set up with solidarity over charity in mind.

Mark Gordon, Power to Change

Consumers have become more conscious of the narratives charities provide and are not afraid to speak out if they it could be detrimental. Last year, Comic Relief promised to change its approach and ditch ‘white saviour’ appeals, for example. At the time, the charity’s CEO Liz Warner said that although celebrities are crucial to gaining funding she recognises the damaging effect these the appeals could have.

As a result, not-for-profit organisations have to think about marketing beyond just a way to raise money.

“There has been a mass reflection and this societal change where people are conscious that perhaps [treating those in need as simply as victims] isn’t the most respectful way to talk to others,” says Thomas.

A better reflection

Sophie Castell, relationships director and top marketer at the Royal National Institute of Blind People’s (RNIB) agrees there has been a “real sense of social change and change in attitudes” especially for disability and patient charities. As society becomes more inclusive and people who were previously at the fringes become more empowered, she believes “they want to see themselves beyond a stereotype”.

Charities are often the way that the wider public learn about issues and if done wrong she thinks these campaigns can affect people’s confidence. “More and more people want to be shown for who they are,” she says.

RNIB recently shifted its strategy to reflect this, using empowering and inclusive images of blind and partially sighted people.

Castell explains: “For us there was a shift in terms of wanting to be less of a traditional service provider to people and more of an enabler and a catalyst for change. There was a shift in thinking about our support model to something more empowering.”

READ MORE: RNIB on breaking down barriers so people see the person not the sight loss

This meant extensive research with blind and partially sighted people, which led to a redesign of the charity’s logo to include more spacing between letters so it’s easier to read for those with sight difficulties.

It also launched a campaign which uses humour as a way to ensure those who are blind or partially-sighted are seen as people beyond their disability.

Castell adds: “Like any charity, we don’t have massive marketing budgets so we were definitely looking for something that was sticky and captured the imagination because it’s important to make our marketing budgets go further. There was definitely an element of ‘how can we make our marketing budgets go as far as they can’ and humour is a very good way of doing that because it projects the message.

“Also, if you are about dispelling myths in a way that makes people smile [then they are more likely to] say ‘oh I didn’t quite think of it like that, yes, that’s a different take on it’.”

After carrying out some research, Macmillan Cancer Support realised the way charities portray cancer patients could impact people’s mental health. It found a quarter of people with cancer said they had not shared their thoughts about death and dying with anyone as they felt pressurised to be seen as a “fighter”.

Adrienne Betteley, a specialist adviser on end-of-life care at Macmillan Cancer Support, told the Guardian: “We know that ‘battling’ against cancer can help some people remain upbeat about their disease, but for others the effort of keeping up a brave face is exhausting and unhelpful in the long term. We need to let people define their own experiences without using language that might create a barrier to vital conversations about dying.”

READ MORE: How Macmillan is moving its brand beyond metaphors to show ‘harsh reality’ of cancer

Blood cancer charity Anthony Nolan set up a patient panel five years ago to ensure it always puts patients first and best reflects their wishes and needs. It also ensures storytelling is authentic and identify any gaps.

The panel represents the interests of patients to ensure the information it provides them and their families is appropriate. However, more recently the charity has applied this to external marketing with the panel helping to develop new campaigns to “ensure it reflects real experiences and real lives,” according to Beth Gardner, the organisation’s assistant director of engagement.

Balancing the long term and short term

Marketing in the charity sector has not changed overnight, with many of the changes building over time as organisations reassess their approach to be more reflective of society.

“Charities need to revisit their mission and their purpose and be clear about that; a lot of organisations are doing that right now,” Castell explains.

The first step is understanding both the lived experiences of those the charity is trying to help alongside the general views of the wider public.

“You have to understand both your customer base and the people you support but also understand wider society and what their views and perspectives are. It’s really about grounding your communications with real authenticity,” says Castell.

More and more people want to be shown for who they are.

Sophie Castell, RNIB

Mark Gordon, director of communications and partnerships at independent trust Power to Change, argues that charities need to change their long-term business model to truly empower those in need.

“We were set up with solidarity over charity in mind,” he explains. “It’s about hands up rather than a hand out. We mainly grant funds to community businesses to become sustainable.”

Oxfam’s Thomas says charities have to weigh up the long-term and short-term impact of their marketing, however. 

“We know that sometimes giving people the obvious things that we know will drive an immediate response [in terms of raising money] can be important but we also have to balance that with long-term understanding of what that means for people’s feelings of empowerment and for the relationship we have with them,” she explains.

“We still have a tricky balance to strike. A key part of our role in the world is to draw attention to some of the most difficult and horrendous situations. It’s about trying to be respectful but at the same time we do need to show the gravity and seriousness of the situation. It’s a really tricky line which can lead you into territory where you have to weigh up avoiding people seeming like passive victims but also understanding that these are very challenging circumstances,” she adds.

This means educating employees on the issues so everything from content and case studies to training conveys the importance of empowerment. All the more important after it was revealed a number of the charity’s workers were accused of sexual misconduct in Haiti while helping the country recover from the 2010 earthquake.

Oxfam tries to ensure this thoughtfulness extends to every aspect of its communications, which has meant a structural change bringing together different departments and people from throughout the organisation. The brand has tried to create a unified approach to fundraising, brands, marketing and campaigns so that each department is more holistic in its view.

When it comes to being authentic RNIB’s Castell, who trained at Coca-Cola, suggests corporate businesses could take a lesson or two from charities.

She explains: “It’s different for all organisations but actually whether you’re a charity or a commercial organisation that degree of authenticity and understanding what you’re there for and why you exist is important. You have to really be clear about authenticity and for charities that’s even more important.“

Ultimately, all brands need to ensure that their marketing is responsible, diverse and represents an authentic brand purpose.



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