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16 December 2002updated 24 Sep 2015 12:16pm

Charities go corporate

Marketing campaigns, mergers, high salaries for the bosses, image rebranding: these days, even those

By Gideon Burrows

My first Christmas card came extra early this year, dropping through the letter box sometime in the first week of November. Like any card from a close friend, it came in a personally addressed envelope, accompanied by an intimate handwritten letter carrying news of what someone would be up to during the festive season.

Only this card wasn’t from a personal friend. It was a fundraising appeal from Help the Aged. The news was not about someone I knew personally, but of Maud Wilson, a 78-year-old woman who will be completely alone this Christmas – again.

“For me, Christmas is the loneliest time of the year,” writes Maud. “I try to keep my spirits up by singing along to the carols on the television and putting up some holly and tinsel, but it’s really hard when there’s no one to share it with.”

Saddening, isn’t it? Help the Aged’s unsolicited appeal stirred my emotions and had me reaching for my chequebook – “your £14 could help stop this tragedy” – as well as a stamp, which was “not required but using one saves our funds”.

Anyone familiar with the pile of leaflets that tumbles out of any worthy magazine at this time of year will know Maud isn’t the only one appealing for us to dig deep this Christmas. This is the giving season and the spending season. Hundreds of large charities spend thousands to persuade us to give.

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The weekly magazine Third Sector – “working for a better world” – has for months carried news of Christmas campaigns launched by the biggest charities. The Salvation Army has “invested” £2.5m this year, hoping to bring in 240,000 new supporters and up to £12m in Christmas funds. Other charities have launched integrated TV, magazine and mail-shot campaigns with marketing firms such as WWAV Rapp Collins, which also helps Toyota to flog cars and Pfizer to market drugs. A new TV advert promoting membership of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds sets out to “emotionally involve the viewer in the theme of loss”, to show what the world would be like without birds.

Third Sector also carries the latest news about the world of charity branding. Did you know the Samaritans have just relaunched their image? “A phone line is never going to change society,” says David Richards, director of marketing. Through a series of new posters and press adverts, none of which display the helpline number or the traditional orange logo, the charity wants to show that it is an organisation which provides support for all aspects of emotional distress, not just the suicidal.

The International Spinal Research Trust has spent weeks in focus groups this year, emerging to rebrand itself as Spinal Research, complete with a modern logo. “Spinal Research has a striking new look. It marks the dawn of a new era as medical science develops ways to repair spinal cords to reverse paralysis,” the revamped website says.

“Every aspect of what an organisation does must communicate the right image to those audiences that matter,” says a new report on charity branding, Polishing the Diamond, by the think-tank NFP Synergy. “It is no longer enough to do good work.”

Image matters. Research for the report revealed nearly two out of three people can’t name a charity that works in overseas development, while even more can’t name a disability charity. Marketing tricks to promote charity brands are common practice now.

Few charities would want consciously to associate their brand with smelly, grotty pub toilets, but that’s exactly what the Prostate Cancer Charity has just done. Instead of chasing around that rogue cigarette butt in the pub urinal, men are being urged to buy a gobstopper-sized powder “pee ball” from the bar, and chase that around instead. A yukky subject? Perhaps. But the charity reckons it could make £1m out of this smart marketing trick, while raising awareness about the UK’s fastest-growing cancer.

Yet there’s something not quite right with this picture. Haven’t we seen these clever tactics, this emotional manipulation, somewhere before? Indeed, we have. We are bombarded with this stuff daily from companies trying to flog us everything from holidays to health insurance. Firms undergo huge corporate rebranding – like BP’s multimillion-pound, environment-friendly new flower/sun logo – to get us to buy their products or change our opinion about what they do. Marketing firms invent silly games, competitions and puzzles to push the brand into our brains and the cash out of our pockets.

Charities have inherited, customised and reissued all the marketing ploys everyone loves to hate from big business.

“The world is getting more and more competitive for charities,” says the NFP Synergy report. “Competition is intense for fundraising, for media coverage, for local authority contracts, for government grants and volunteers.”

Competition? Yes. Charity is big business. It employs more than half a million people – more than 2 per cent of the total workforce – and contributes £5.4bn to the economy. The whole voluntary sector earns £15.6bn in funds every year.

As I wrote in these pages a few weeks ago, the voluntary sector is Tony Blair’s “fourth way”. Next to big business, charities are the Labour government’s best friend for the delivery of public services. The sector earns £4.5bn a year from government contracts, has enjoyed its own cross-cutting Treasury report and was reviewed by Blair’s Performance and Innovation Unit (PIU).

In our competitive economy, the biggest charities have had to adopt the expensive marketing ruses of big business in order to contend with them for every pound in our pockets. Smaller charities have had to mimic their big sisters just to keep up. This year has even seen million-pound mergers between cancer charities, as well as between those working on HIV issues.

These days, charity fundraisers are invited to conferences such as “the changing world of kids”, where they hear that “the kids’ marketplace is an ever-changing landscape creating numerous commercial challenges”. Charity fundraising executives are able to command salaries akin to the private sector. RNID, the Red Cross and Guy’s Hospital are all recruiting for £60,000-plus marketing staff.

Is this corporatisation of the charity sector a bad thing? It is a question many will ask themselves as they cross the road to avoid clipboard-wielding teenagers trying to sign up new members on street corners. There’s something a little distasteful about this, like religious preachers or car breakdown insurance salesmen.

Distasteful, maybe. But effective. “Face-to-face fundraising” brought in an extra £2m for Save the Children last year, as well as thousands of younger supporters (with a long giving-life ahead of them); supporters whom the charity could not otherwise reach. Greenpeace, which brought the technique to the UK in 1997, still swears by it. More than half a million new members are recruited by charities annually using these methods.

The government and charity sector alike have acknowledged that, with its hugely increased power and growing income, the charity sector will not only take on the marketing techniques of big business, but must also be subject to the same public accountability checks and legal obligations endured by the private sector.

That was one of the main conclusions of both the Treasury’s cross-cutting review into the voluntary sector and the PIU review. Charities were urged to publish better annual reports, be more honest about how and why income is spent, and to provide better conditions for staff. Charities and voluntary groups that receive taxpayers’ money by providing public services were particularly urged to clean up their act.

In business, where the bottom line is the balance sheet, companies factor in social responsibility, good governance and ethical behaviour because not to do so could hurt their profits. In charities, where the bottom line already is the good work, does good governance, transparency and ethical behaviour matter as much, as long as the good work continues?

It does – just as in the commercial sector, public support, and therefore spending, can be fickle and short-lived. Where once newspapers would run cuddly puppy-dog stories of charities doing good work against the odds, the emphasis has now shifted in the opposite direction. Tabloids look out for scandal: Cancer Research UK and the Leukaemia Research Fund both came under fire in March, when it was revealed they had shareholdings in BAE Systems, the world’s second-largest arms manufacturer.

A charity’s ability to do good can be threatened by a poor image. Better regulation and more transparency will strengthen public trust in giving. That translates into more donations, more good works being done and more people (plants and animals) helped.

Before we all hand over the readies, though, a simple note of caution. Just as happens in the corporate world, the free marketisation of the charitable sector has a worrying potential to put the squeeze on the little guy. While big-branded, million-pound-budget charities rake in your cash through TV campaigns, face-to-face fundraising and mail-shots, smaller local causes, those trying to build that new hospice wing or plant a butterfly garden at the local old folks’ home, just can’t measure up. These charities are not run by teams of highly paid professionals with a management or marketing degree, but by committed individuals desperate to make some kind of difference.

So Maud Wilson will get my £14 this year, even though I know how much it cost Help the Aged to ask for it. But this Christmas, I’ll also make an extra effort to find the small change that makes a real difference to those tin rattlers and carol singers appealing for funds without the slick tricks and gimmicks attached.