If charities can't inspire loyalty, 'caring capitalism' will take over | Max du Bois

Companies focus on passion and ethics while the voluntary sector strives to sound more businesslike. It’s time to fight back – here’s how

It’s been a punishing year for charities as public trust hit record lows, but they now face their biggest threat yet: a corporate takeover.

While charities are striving to sound more businesslike in their bid to reclaim trust and credibility after a slew of scandals, companies have started adopting a “caring capitalism” attitude that focuses on passion, heart and the responsibilities of citizenship. So while the corporate sector is focusing on the value of doing good to attract customers and investors, charities are aiming to be seen as more professional, talking about impact, returns and investment.

By losing this focus on their values, however, charities are eroding their unique position in society. They are letting the corporate sector steal a march on them.

In the UK, 88% of people [pdf] think corporations have the resources and influence to make change at international, national and local levels; and 78% think they should do it. Meanwhile, research shows that 83% of households use a service provided by a charity but a quarter of them don’t actually realise this. Charities are not getting credit where it’s due and it’s showing.

So how can charities turn this around? The answer is value statements.

Values are crucial. They help tell a unique story, engage and connect with people, and motivate them to be part of a movement. That is how charities inspire loyalty. Most charity value statements have become generic and bland. Setting their sights on efficiency and professionalism may appear to be the safest route, yet in reality it is the most damaging. As the sector is transformed by technology, competition and changing donor behaviour, charities need to get in front of the right people for the right reasons. Here are some of the best ways to do so:

Have a clear statement of your values

In our recent analysis of 50 of the top 100 UK charities, 28% didn’t explicitly talk about their values at all.

Remember, in a crowded market, people will listen to you – and give you time and money – when they care about your cause and share your values.

Don’t waste the opportunity to use value statements to say something really engaging and different. Your values are about why you do what you do. When emotional engagement is the goal, lead with the why rather than the what or how.

Generic values are those that are shared across the sector. They are expected and assumed by all but are often considered “things that we should probably say”. The main problem with using them is that it states the obvious.

Some of the worst offenders are words like honest (10% of charities researched), passionate (25%) and committed (25%). These values are almost universal in the third sector; it’s like claiming to be altruistic. Don’t waste everyone’s time by simply telling them what type of organisation they can expect to find in the charity sector.

Know the difference between values and behaviours

Almost 35% of the charities we looked at confused values and behaviours. The key difference is that behaviours are the standards you operate to and values are the principles behind your actions. Values are external communications tools. Behaviours are internal management tools, but often have a similar-sounding, positive vocabulary, like respect (28%) and effective (16%). When they get confused a crucial opportunity to engage with the public is lost.

The simple rule is this: don’t tell me you’re funny; make me laugh! In other words, demonstrate you are professional, inclusive, transparent and so on, and use the values statement for something really engaging.
In the worst examples we found values statements that read like the internal strategy documents from which they were probably copied and pasted.

Be bold and be different

Charities need to be bold, ambitious and different. Drawing your individual values out and sharing them will go a long way to achieving this.

Tell people who you are and why it matters that you exist. If you don’t take a stand for something, you may as well not stand for anything. By trying to please everyone and playing it safe, you risk not getting through to anyone.

Stand for something, cause a reaction, get past the obvious, remember who you represent and find something genuine – then people will rally to your cause, give you the funds you need and make your charity the change-maker you were set up to be.

Max du Bois is executive director at charity brand experts Spencer du Bois

Talk to us on Twitter via @Gdnvoluntary and join our community for your free fortnightly Guardian Voluntary Sector newsletter, with analysis and opinion sent direct to you on the first and third Thursday of the month.

Max du Bois

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