With competition between charities to raise funds getting fiercer by the day, public relations could offer the edge some of them need. But, asks Amy Martinez, should charities be wary of a profession that could potentially give them too much success?
The days when charities could rely on volunteers to shake buckets in busy shopping centres to raise money have long gone.
In fact sponsorship and volunteers are no longer enough to keep charities afloat, let alone raise money for their causes.
Add to this the huge competition in the not-for-profit sector and the business of charity is not one to be taken lightly.
Overseas appeals have had a huge financial impact on UK charities such as the Missing Persons Helpline and Childline. Smaller charities like this have faced competition from causes such as the Tsunami appeal and Make Poverty History. These huge appeals have had the funding to give them the high profile they needed to gain vital donations.
Sophie Woodforde, a spokesperson from Missing Persons Helpline, said the problem was that her charity was not a big lobbyist or PR campaigner. And she added that that the lesson from the Tsunami appeal was that they should be trying to promote themselves in a bigger and better way. That is where PR can help.
Mike Ash-Edwards, senior member relations manager at United Co-operatives and regular speaker at Charity PR conventions, said: “Public relations is just as important to charities as other organistations in raising profile and drawing attention to their activities.”
PR would not raise funds, he said, but used alongside fundraising strategies it could “boost income”. Mr Ash-Edwards added that charities should make the most of their charity status by exploiting opportunities such as as free support from celebrities – after all, celebrities will use this to boost their own publicity too.
That is what Make Poverty History did. The “Click” advert had huge impact, largely because it had most of the cast from Love Actually, from Emma Thompson, to Liam Neelson, to Hugh Grant as well as the likes of Justin Timberlake, Kylie Minogue, Cameron Diaz and Davina Mcall. Such use of celebrity captures a broad target audience, making the appeal as wide-ranging as possible.
The founder of Make Poverty History, Richard Curtis, who directed such films as Love Actually, (perhaps explaining why half the cast was in the advert) recruited such a large number A-list celebrities because of his own celebrity status. He used his contacts and relations with the people to ensure their involvement. That created a media frenzy, and Make Poverty History revelled in the massive free media coverage and publicity, not to mention the enormity of Live 8, which millions of people watched in ten countries.
It is not surprising smaller charities struggle to compete. Again, that is where PR can help. PR is about communicating effectively to key publics and creating a “mutual understanding”. In the case of charities, that may mean working to gain corporate sponsorship, or creating excellent media relations to ensure good press coverage of fundraising activities.
That is exactly what Make Poverty History did, and what UK charities need from their PR departments. Obviously it is not always possible for charities to recruit the likes of Brad Pitt to support their cause, but that is where PR can step in to help to raise profile and awareness in the target public. Celebrities may not always be appropriate, and it is worth considering the aristocracy and the ladies who lunch, who are always interested in a charitable cause.
A good PR department will know who to target and how to target. It seems there is evidence PR can be used by charities to boost fundraising. But charities must take care not to cross that border from being a nonprofit organisation to what the public sees as a for-profit one.
PR seeks to grow and improve an organisation and ultimately it wants to achieve success for it. But charities must always be seen as being in a position of need, otherwise donations will cease. After all, who would give to a charity that has more money than it knows what to do with? Public trust is a key area to PR, arguably the most important.
Charities do not offer donors tangible goods which benefit them directly and there is also vast scepticism over how funds are used and whether they are actually benefiting the cause. It follows that a key role for PR is to communicate to both potential and current donors how donations are being spent and to highlight past successes. By publicising the information, charities can seek to gain this mutual trust.
A charity’s status of being in the business of helping people rather than increasing profits can be used to its advantage but that alone is not enough. PR can enhance, broaden and communicate this status, and improve perception. It has been said that “perception is reality.” Whether that is true or not, perception is vital to any business, and even more so for charities who heavily rely on their publics for funding.
Finally, for charities to stay in the crucial position of “need”, they must be forever initiating new appeals and strategies. That gives them the reason to continually seek funding from their target publics by presenting them with a fresh reason to give.
Charities must be cautious when using PR and have a specific purpose for it. The outcome should be sufficient success to achieve the charity’s aim, but not so much that the status as a charity becomes redundant. There should be a harmony between the two, and an understanding of the level of success desired.
PR is being adopted by charities but more need to do so. Just like most businesses, success relies on effective communication to stakeholders and their later involvement. But a special PR approach is required by charities and there are already enough organisations in the sector using PR successfully from which those only now taking the plunge can learn a vast amount.
Good PR can work wonders in enhancing fundraising efforts of charities and can help them in overcoming the growing competition. If there is a continuing need for funding, and a specific purpose for the PR activity then redundancy through success is not a situation charities should find themselves in.
Charities are non-profit organisations, so profit is not at stake as with other businesses. What is at stake is much more important — survival. Whether they are devoted to finding missing people or helping children, charities need to do all they can to continue their good work and PR can help achieve that, harmoniously.