‘We were unheard of’: How one charity went from unknown to raising £130m

Before the coronavirus pandemic struck, the majority of the British public couldn’t name NHS Charities Together, but with its Covid-19 appeal having raised £130m the new challenge is dealing with the attention and maintaining engagement.

Back in March, it is unlikely you had heard of NHS Charities Together. In research the organisation ran with JCDecaux last year, it found that two out of three people did not know the NHS had its own charities. And among those that said they did, they mostly came up with non-NHS charities such as Macmillan Cancer Support or the British Heart Foundation.

“Our brand was unheard of and the sector not known by two-thirds of people in the country,” admits CEO Ellie Orton, speaking to Marketing Week. “That was the starting point.”

NHS Charities Together is a membership body for local health service fundraisers. There are almost 240 local NHS charities in the UK, the biggest and most well-known of which is Great Ormond Street Hospital Children’s Charity.

Between them, they contribute more than £1m every day to NHS causes – ranging from the nearly £90m Great Ormond Street raises a year to just tens of thousands of pounds for smaller organisations.

The body that ties them all together, however, is neither well-known nor a big fundraiser. It’s annual appeal over the past couple of years has been tea parties, which have raised around £170,000 annually.

Then along came coronavirus. Orton recalls having to “very rapidly” cancel the tea party appeal it was about to launch in mid-March, as “asking people to get together for tea parties clearly wasn’t the right message”. Instead it launched an appeal to ask the public to help in the NHS response to Covid-19.

Orton expected the appeal to raise much more than the tea parties but thought it might be around £20m. On the first day it launched – 23 March, the same day the UK went into lockdown – she got a call from someone donating £10m. Then Captain Tom’s fundraising efforts captured the public imagination and the whole appeal spiralled.

Our brand was unheard of and the sector not known by two-thirds of people in the country.

Ellie Orton, NHS Charities Together

“We knew this was going to be very different but we were thinking in the tens of millions,” she recalls. “But within five days we had over £15m. Everywhere there were people wanting to be able to support and give to the NHS. You could see the country really took to heart the message to protect the NHS and do their bit beyond staying at home.”

NHS Charities Together’s appeal has now raised more than £130m. That has fired the previously little known body onto the fundraising top table. For some context, charities with an annual income of more than £50m make up just 0.1% of the total number.

The appeal no doubt benefitted from having some high-profile partners, including ITV, which helped NHS Charities Together gain exposure. And it was gifted TV air time by brands that no longer needed ad slots they had booked pre-pandemic. The core message of helping the NHS seems to have resonated.

“We thought if we could tell people that the NHS has charities you can give to, people might want to support it. That was the case and not just people, but the whole myriad of different types of fundraisers,” says Orton.

The charity’s ‘transition’ period

Its success has given Orton and her team a new set of challenges. She says the organisation is now in a “transition” period where it needs to move from managing the appeal to getting funds to members, which have grown from 140 at the start of the pandemic to almost the 240 now.

“We are a membership organisation so we now need to pick back up and support members. Giving them money to be able to spend, and ensure they spend it well and appropriately,” says Orton. “We’ve invested in fundraising to be able to support the appeal, but the bigger investment is within our member services and grant functions – that area of increasing our capabilities and capacity.”

Amid the groundswell of support there have also been questions over the role of charity within the NHS and how it works for a government-funded body. Orton says the key thing to communicate is that NHS charities do work that goes “above and beyond” rather than replacing public funds.

“NHS charities are there to support the NHS, they are not there to replace public funds. The normal litmus test for that is, is it core service or is it above and beyond? So you get, this is what the NHS can do on its own and this is what it can do with the charity,” she explains.

“One of the ambitions within our five-year strategy was raising the profile of NHS charities so the public did understand there was a way to legally give charitably to the NHS and by doing that they fall under NHS legislation and charity law. That actually it is the best way to safeguard that funds are being spent charitably rather than replacing public money.”

Orton is keen to sustain the profile of NHS charities beyond Covid-19, although she recognises that expecting income from its appeal to hit hundreds of millions in future is “not reasonable”. But fundraising will continue to be key both in the shorter term as the country lives alongside and recovers from Covid-19, and also longer term to deal with some of the health inequalities the pandemic has thrown up.

Of particular interest for NHS Charities Together is community partnerships that can work with the NHS to tackle public health, whether that is increasing physical activity, tackling knife crime or the role of the arts.

“Integrated strategic partnerships and services – that is the way the NHS needs to work and certainly an outcome of that is reducing health inequalities. These are strategic things we were looking at before Covid, but now we are looking through the lens of how it has affected these areas and therefore how do we support in the future,” says Orton.

“And we are committed to telling the public this is where their funds are being spent, the difference they are making, the impact, what we’re doing as an organisation to support that. That constant engagement is vital.”

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