If you are a small charity there are certain issues which will affect you particularly. So read the article below on digital strategy.
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The practice of mergers in the charity sector is not uncommon. Over the years we have seen many examples where two high profile charities operating in the same sector have come together for the greater good of the organisations and those who they serve. Age UK, for example, was the result of a 2009 merger between Age Concern England and Help the Aged, which itself had merged with Research into Ageing in 2001.
There has also been some consolidation of connected trusts under the same umbrella. As recently as June 2016 it was announced that the Prince of Wales’ built environment charities are to merge, with the Prince’s Regeneration Trust (PRT) becoming a subsidiary of the Prince’s Foundation for Building Community (PFBC).
A lifeline for smaller charities?
When charities of this size are exploring - and often pursuing - the benefits of mergers, it should be a wake-up call for smaller charities, many of whom continue to struggle with financial pressure from public funding cuts.
Despite this, few smaller, regional charities seem to be open to mergers. A report published by the Foundation for Social Improvement (FSI) in June shows one in 10 small UK charities describe their chances of closure as “likely” in the next 12 months – but only 2% of small charities are currently considering a merger.
Merging with a similar like-minded charity could help to deliver the increased funding, knowledge, support and services needed not only to survive, but to thrive. It could deliver economies of scale, bring additional expertise into the organisation and provide financial security – helping to deliver a better overall service to the users and stakeholders who both charities strive to help. On an operational level it could mean better facilities, increased fundraising capacity and reduced overheads.
To put this into context, a quick Google search shows at least four or five relatively small homeless charities in Leeds, where I work. When I tried to help a rough sleeper near our office last year I contacted the City Council and they suggested up to eight separate charities which I could contact for further help. Each is trying to service the same sector and clearly working extremely hard to make a difference - no doubt with their own background, supporters and proud independence - but it defies economics.
When funding is tight and workloads are increasing, something has to give. Having said that, I do appreciate that mergers are not the panacea for all financial issues, but they need to be on the agenda as charities are expected to do "more with less" in austerity UK.
Increased collaboration between charities
Of course, I am not the first to raise this issue. The FSI report warns that smaller charities must form "strategic alliances" in order to survive closure - more than a quarter are faced with declining funds and almost a third report a rise in workload, which is putting many charities at risk.
Mergers can offer growth potential and future security, but they are not the only means of collaboration. Joint ventures (6%), formal partnerships (20%) and strategic alliances (36%) were all listed by charities as ways in which they are improving efficiencies and reducing costs. Networking (65%) was by far the largest way in which charities work together, as they seek to make connections, increase knowledge and raise awareness.
Collaboration of any form is vital in the charity sector, particularly in the current climate. Without the safety net of central funding, charities must work harder, think smarter and be more innovative. The best way to do that is to learn from and share with others – but more than a third of charities (34%) are still not involved in any collaborative work at all, according to FSI.
Charities being put off mergers
So why does there remain some trepidation from smaller charities about looking at the potential of mergers?
Part of it may be a lack of commercial acumen from charities which may not have the resources and professional support of their larger counterparts. There may also be a sense of pride and independence – a reluctance to "give away" everything that the charity has built up. Whilst understandable, neither of these should really apply if the charity is at risk of closure due to funding difficulties.
There is also some inevitable concern over the complexity and potential cost of the merger process but legal, tax, HR and financial barriers can be overcome provided you work closely with your professional advisers. There will inevitably be a cost involved, but when you consider the long term implications – and the potential cost savings that could be achieved by the new organisation – it may not be as daunting as it first looks.
Looking forwards with confidence
Of course, the current situation is far from bleak for the charity sector, but smaller charities in particular must be increasingly mindful of their future finances. With this in mind, collaboration is a sensible choice to improve efficiency and competiveness.
As we have already heard, there are a range of ways in which charities can collaborate which do not have to lead to great expense, nor an unnecessary loss of independence – and for some charities, this might include the possibility of mergers. Consider the benefits and look forwards – you might just be pleasantly surprised at what the future could hold for your merged organisation.
According to the latest data by legacy information company Smee & Ford, charitable legacies rose by 8% in 2014 to £2.208 billion, compared to £2.044 billion in 2013. Crucially, the average proportion of estates left to charities also grew – up from 15.8% in 2013 to 16.65% in 2014.
These trends, of course, are extremely positive for charities and they go some way to demonstrate the potential of legacies as a revenue stream for charities of all sizes. Smee & Ford’s data shows that 112,937 donations were left by almost 35,000 donors in 2014 and the number of charities benefiting from donations rose by 5% to 2,257.
To understand some of the reasons behind this continued growth of charitable legacies, we have to go back to 2012 and the inheritance tax relief introduced by the Coalition Government.
As part of David Cameron’s Big Society ideology, since 6 April 2012 executors can pay a reduced rate of inheritance tax - 36% instead of 40% – if 10% or more of the estate is left to a charity. It was a move specifically designed to encourage more people to leave money to charities in their will and it seems to have had the desired effect.
At the time, the change was estimated to cost the Government £25 million in 2012/13, £75 million in 2013/14 and £125 million in 2014/15. It was based on the assumption that charities will receive an extra £300 million over three years as a result of the new rules.
It is very difficult of course to attribute specific growth to any individual reason, but charitable legacies have undoubtedly soared over the same period. At more than £2.2 billion, they represent the largest single source of voluntary income for the UK’s charities. According to Legacy Foresight, charitable legacies have quadrupled over the past 25 years from just £0460 million in 1988.
Of course, for any charity to benefit from this growth, they must have the correct processes, systems and infrastructure in place. Smee & Ford reports that just over 2,200 charities benefited from legacies in 2014, but this is only a fraction of the 165,000 registered charities in England and Wales.
Clearly the larger charities do well from legacies, with bigger marketing budgets, greater resource and nationwide recognition. It is not an exaggeration to say that national charities currently monopolise legacies. You only have to google “charity legacy”, for example, to find pay-per-click advertising from Macmillan, Clic Sargent and Save the Children at the top of the page, some even offering help and advice with will writing.
Regional charities won’t have this same clout, of course, but there is still plenty that can be done to encourage legacy donations from your supporters and get a bigger slice of the legacy pie.
If you don’t already have one in place, a comprehensive legacy policy is a must. There is some excellent guidance on the Gov.UK website, including links to the Institute of Fundraising which covers ethical considerations, how to communicate with the public and special groups for sharing ideas.
Above all else, make use of all marketing channels. Make sure legacies are promoted on your website, in newsletters and any other written communication, because often supporters won’t even be aware of it – let alone the potential tax benefits introduced in 2012.
The other advice I would offer is to stay close to your supporters. In July last year, we saw a landmark ruling in favour of Heather Illot, who contested her mother’s will after she left her £486,000 estate to the RSPCA, RSPB and Blue Cross when she died in 2004.
According to the BBC’s report of the case, the Court of Appeal ruled Mrs Illot should receive a third of the estate because her mother had not left “reasonable provision” for her in her will. In reality, Mrs Illot’s lawyers also used the fact that her mother had no connection to the charities benefiting under the will as a strong background to her appeal.
In the aftermath of this case, individuals seeking to disinherit their children in favour of charities were advised to provide a detailed explanation to supplement their will which explains exactly why they are excluding their children – and, more pertinently, to explain their connection with the charities they wish to bequeath.
For any such charity, my advice is to do everything you can to build relationships with your key supporters so you are prepared for the worst in case of a challenge from disappointed family members. Keep internal records of all contact and amounts donated with benefactors up to date, because unfortunately they may be needed as evidence if a will is challenged in this way.
Controversy and ethics
Of course, legacies can be an extremely sensitive subject. As the Government’s own website states, “you may have to deal with difficult situations such as talking to people about what happens after they die, or talking to family members after someone has died. You, your trustees and staff should be sensitive to all involved.” You may also need to take measures to recover a legacy which has been left to your charity.
We are all aware of the controversy over charities “chasing” bereaved relatives for gifts. The Times newspaper raised the issue most recently in December 2015 with its front page splash accusing Age UK, the RSPCA and WWF-UK of “trawling” through public records of wills so they can “chase” bereaved relatives.
There are ethics and good fundraising practice to uphold, but the fact remains that charities of all sizes rely on such legacy incomes to survive. To quote a joint statement from the Institute of Fundraising and Remember a Charity in response to the Times’ investigation, “charities have a legal duty to manage legacy gifts and ensure that the wishes of the donor are realised”. Fortunately, most bereaved families still want to realise the wishes of their loved ones.
It is likely that this kind of controversy has caused some trepidation amongst smaller, regional charities when it comes to legacies. Even those which are actively promoting the idea are unlikely to have the time, resource or money to trawl through public records of wills in the way that national charities do in the hope that money has been left to them.
However, it should not put any charity off. With a £2 billion pot available from almost 35,000 charity supporters, legacies continue to be an extremely valuable source of income for charities. And with evidence to show that the legacy pot is growing – together with the legacies themselves as a percentage of estate – the opportunities will continue to grow.
Don’t be afraid to engage with your supporters in a sensitive and caring manner – it may even reduce their family’s inheritance tax liabilities – a "win-win" situation.
"It is not an exaggeration to say that national charities currently monopolise legacies."
In the end, in the beginning, and ever always, it comes down to money. Where to find money? Who to approach for money? How to maintain the flow of money? The fact is, just as the railways would operate more efficiently without passengers, so charities would accomplish so much more if they did not constantly have to raise funds.
It is a challenge for every organisation of any size, but particularly for the many grassroots charities, here and around the globe, which operate on fresh air fortified with the enthusiasm and energy of a few. It is the latter to whom I direct this piece in which I outline the necessary steps a charity needs make if it is to become successful at fundraising.
Tears in social fabric
In many respects, grassroots charities are the non-profit equivalent of small businesses. Where the latter are quick to identify and plug market opportunities, the former excel at identifying and responding to the small tears in the social fabric that need a stitch or a patch.
They are particularly important because they are of the communities they serve. They operate with an insider’s knowledge of what is required, of the resources to hand, and how the challenge may best be met. Moreover, like their commercial equivalents, small charities are the seedbed for the future. Every big charity was once a small charity responding to a particular need.
But here comes the rub – it is the inherent contradiction of small charities that what gives them their great strength in their communities is also their weakness. It is their size. Being small allows them to be ultra sensitive and responsive, but it also limits the numbers they can call on for support.
Typically they must rely on immediate family and friends, the problem being compounded by the fact that most do not have the confidence, expertise or means to extend their appeal beyond that intimate circle. The fact is if they are to survive long term, if they are to become independent and self-reliant, it is vital that small charities should build a broad donor base.
Web of interlinked networks
However, to state the obvious: to raise funds you first need to identify people willing to donate funds.
There is a simple technique for developing the number of people a charity can call on for support and that is to map your networks. The concept is to create a web of interlinked networks of friends, associates and relevant organisations, starting with yourself in the centre and spreading out to everyone you know in all the different groups or networks which you are or have been involved with.
Your primary network will, of course, consist of your immediate family and friends. To this you can add the work contacts - staff, volunteers, trustees, former associates, beneficiaries - before adding other networks you belong to or associate with. Your book reading group, the chess club, professional organisations, etc.
Once the concept is grasped it is simple to execute and it is always surprising to discover the number of people any one person actually knows. According to leading anthropologist, Robin Dunbar, the average number of friends for an individual is about 150.
Now, if this same exercise is undertaken by everyone in the prime networks and everyone else directly associated with the charity, it takes no imagination to understood how large the database of potential donors can become. Once completed, names and contact details need to be managed and maintained, and the whole process re-run twice a year to keep the information current.
Fundraising and clear communication
Rarely does anyone give to an individual or organisation about whom they know nothing. So before a charity even considers asking for donations, it needs to raise awareness of its hopes and ambitions, its objectives and its achievements. The charity needs to show to its audience the need it is there to meet. Notice I use the word show. Wannabe novelists are always instructed to show, not tell.
The same holds true of good communications: do not tell your audience what to think, instead limit yourself to describing the circumstances of a situation, or the outcome, and trust the reader to use their imagination to arrive at a conclusion sympathetic to your concern.
Showing treats the reader as an intelligent participant, rather than an insensitive object needing to be shouted at. (It is also an explanation as to why images are so effective in communications.)
Routes to raising awareness
Marketing budgets are not a major item on the balance sheet of most small charities, so educating potential supporters poses a challenge. The most effective way, of course, is face to face. In other words, to network. And now that you have mapped your networks you have the networks to network.
For the same reason, charity organisers should take advantage of every opportunity to put themselves before audiences wherever and whenever they can. Getting mentions in the local media costs nothing other than the effort to cosy up to those with influence and to define stories that they will find newsworthy rather than ones that you want to plug.
The internet is too vast a beast for me to hope to tame in few short paragraphs, so I shall concentrate on the three elements that I believe are of greatest importance to developing your charitys potential.
Your online presence
If you are to spend any money on marketing, spend it on developing a decent website, by which I mean one that is thoughtfully designed to reflect the values you want to project, as well as one that is informative and easy to navigate. And do maintain it.
A website is not the equivalent of a print brochure you can forget once it is published to leave lying around like some old magazine in a dentist's waiting room. It is a virtual entity that requires regular attention to keep it fresh and up-to-date.
Social media requires a strategy
Although social networking appears simple and, indeed, is simple to get involved with, to employ it effectively requires a carefully considered strategy. Each network is as different in how it communicates and what it is best suited for as Twitter is different from Facebook. For your message to be cohesive, the different parts needs be coordinated to make the whole unified and comprehensible. To do this well, however, is a full-time job.
For my money, Facebook is the must-have network. It is the most popular so the most familiar and, best of all, does not require too much maintenance to keep current. One comment I would make that applies to all social platforms is to observe that the phenomenon is called social media and not soap-box media.
To elaborate, social networks represent a form of conversation which means, even if you are leading the discussion, it is bad manners – for which read ineffective – to monopolise proceedings. The more you listen and the more responsive you are the more likely your friends and followers will be to react positively when you do ask for funds.
Newsletters and emails
The difference between junk mail and the mail people want to read is… is… If I knew the answer, I would be very rich. This is the challenge you face every time you send your supporters a newsletter or appeal. Inevitably, some will junk it, some will read it and most won’t open it. That said, the general rules are: effective newsletters are well-laid out and easy to read. They are not too long.
They are pithy, witty and to the point with the text relieved by pertinent imagery. They are not too frequent, once every two weeks is pushing it. They do not always, always ask for money, and when they do they are more effective if they identify precisely the sum needed and why it is needed.
They will also include a donate button that allows the respondent to be able to give directly online with virtually one click. Newsletters report on how past funds have been spent and the successes the charity has had. So, even when the news is bad, they try to be upbeat.
Employing an email marketing service, which will be free for most small charities, is advisable as it allows you to analyse what is and is not working so, hopefully, you can learn as you progress.
Raising funds requires deliberation
Like any good business, you have now defined your market. You have conversed with your audience and listened to their feedback so should have a solid idea of what in particular attracts them to your project. You are in strong position to make your pitch. But like everything I have discussed, pitching for funds requires deliberation. It needs a plan. One that must be crafted to match the individual nature of your charity, your long term goals and immediate needs.
To attempt to summarise all the possible permutations and combinations would be to generalise to the point of absurdity. (Having said that, one broad point I would make is that all fundraising should be a calculation of time and effort invested against return, which may be measured purely in financial terms, or income plus good will. Sometimes the latter pays bigger dividends longer term, especially when recruiting volunteers.)
Instead let me conclude with a few words about online fundraising. It is no surprise to learn that the trend over the last few years has been the move to online giving. The current trend in the USA, again unsurprisingly, is to mobile giving, and some of the larger charities in the UK, like Marie Curie, already have their own apps available.
Online fundraising platforms
For smaller charities this means it is vital to their fundraising efforts that they partner with at least one of the major online fundraising platforms. Different platforms have different strengths, and all have varying terms and conditions so it is wise to research which is most suitable before committing.
Some platforms are for profit, others are charities in their own right. Some are best suited for event sponsorship from friends and colleagues, others offer training and support to the charities they host.
The truth for all, though, is that your page on any platform is just one of thousands. If it is not linked, if it is not continually promoted, pushed, pointed out, and plugged it will effect nothing. To be successful, as ever always, requires thought and application.
"...before a charity even considers asking for donations, it needs to raise awareness of its hopes and ambitions, its objectives and its achievements."
"...social networks represent a form of conversation which means, even if you are leading the discussion, it is bad manners...to monopolise proceedings."
Charities, especially international charities such as ourselves who work with rural communities in Uganda, operate in a strange situation where the end user and the target donor market are not only different entities in themselves but also in different continents. As a service provider with 30 years’ experience of delivering water, sanitation and hygiene programmes on the ground in Uganda, we feel that we are an excellent proposition for anyone who wishes to donate some of their money to a social cause.
Importantly, we feel that we are uniquely positioned to be able to offer value for money and a genuine connection between donors and the projects they donate to. Our problem is that, until recently, we had no real way of getting that message out into the wider public. Our website was old and rarely updated and was unlikely to be found by anyone looking for charities in our sector.
When I was initially planning the redevelopment of the website, I decided that it needed to be part of a larger integrated digital strategy. We not only needed the main site, but we needed a broad array of identities across the whole web which could refer people to that site. I had four main targets;
1. A complete rebuild of the existing website, along the lines of (but expanding upon) a template developed by a sister organisation.
2. Develop an integrated social media presence for the purpose of advertising our site (and work) and networking within the sector.
3. Gain the greatest possible leverage from all events i.e. industry announcements, campaign days, etc to attract people to our site and increase our standing within the sector.
4. Build partnerships with industry bodies and “shopfront” entities in order to increase referrals to the main site.
Connecting donors to projects
The key selling point of our organisation is that, as a direct service provider, we can connect donors directly to the work on the ground. We wanted a website which achieved that. Thankfully, much of the groundwork for this had been done by our partner organisation, The Water Trust. They started as a US branch of our organisation and allowed us to appropriate their basic web template.
This template was developed using a Wordpress platform, with a system which allocated a specific webpage for each village project. Using remote login capability, the local project manager would write the updates for each well project directly from the field, bringing an accuracy and immediacy to the content which would be hard to achieve through a third party.
Using Wordpress has been a boon for our communications and marketing strategy. It is less flexible for design than pure HTML coding but, unlike HTML, it does not require the skills of a professional to edit. Five minutes of basic instruction is enough to teach anyone how to create a new page, categorise it and link it to a relevant parent page. Whereas in the past the process of publishing a news article would have been slow, now we can hear about a breaking issue on Twitter, write a response on any PC, then feed that article back into the trending wave on Twitter.
The web is built for sharing and integration and therefore we can provide donors with a web page giving a detailed project narrative and embedded Google map, YouTube video, Flickr photo slideshow and detailed statistics available to download as a PDF.
Even relatively technical elements can be added to the website by consulting the Wordpress open source developer community. This simple tool has allowed us to achieve a quality of web offering which belies our skeleton staff (only 2 people contribute to the site) and our minimal communications budget.
Yet a wonderful site is no use unless people visit it. Our web developer, Still-Moving of Southampton, is well schooled in the dark arts of search engine optimisation (SEO) and this, along with the fact that our website is updated on a weekly basis from the field, stands us in good stead with search engines. Eight months ago, a search using the term “Uganda Water” would have eventually found us on page eight of Google results. Now we are on page one.
While Google ranking certainly helps in terms of generating hits, it is not the most effective form of traffic for the website. That is where social media comes to the fore.
Organisations, especially charities, dismiss social media at their peril. To hear someone say that Twitter is merely a platform for vacuous celebrities to talk about themselves is to witness someone speaking from a position of ignorance. The Arab Spring, or closer to home the London riots and their subsequent clean up, have demonstrated the immense power which this form of communication has.
Social media can be easily understood as a form of communication which lends itself to being shared with great ease, capable of reaching mass audiences within minimal input by the originator.
We now employ the full pantheon of social media: Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Flickr, Google+, LinkedIn, Pinterest, and others. Amongst these, the first three are our priority.
Where Twitter has really helped us is in terms of inter-sectoral networking. We are a small organisation with no marketing budget and a difficult to remember name. Yet we do know what we are talking about. Twitter has allowed us to engage on equal terms with all parties within the sector on a truly level playing field. Not only that, but we find our contribution to be valued.
So in the space of less than a year we have gone from being relative unknowns to now being recognised and followed by many of the key influencers within the sector. This recently culminated in us being asked to guest blog on the End Water Poverty “post 2015 MDG blog week” alongside organisations such as Sightsavers. That blog was shared widely by them and contained more of those valuable hyperlinks to our website.
It is here is where we connect with ordinary supporters i.e. individuals who have an interest in our work and who may have visited our programmes on school trips or even fundraised for us. Here we link to more engaging content such as videos or photos of pumps being installed and water flowing for the first time. It is not the forum for policy discussions but a genuine connection between the audience in the UK and the beneficiaries in Uganda. If they are moved by the content, they can share it on their own profiles.
This sharing is what people mean when they describe something as “going viral”. It happens through mediums such as Facebook and Twitter and was demonstrated dramatically by the organisation Invisible Children’s Kony2012 video which was viewed on YouTube by almost 100 million people in a couple of days.
Visual social media
Our Ugandan staff in the field record videos on simple FlipVideo cameras and upload them to YouTube. They also take photos in each village which are uploaded to Flickr. This process, though at the mercy of bandwidth provision in Uganda, provides engaging, shareable content for donors at a relatively low level of labour intensity on our part.
One of the less obvious but highly valuable elements of the digital strategy has been ensuring that we are listed on as many websites as possible. Even if a fundraising initiative looks like it will have little, if any, actual direct financial contribution the very fact that our name appears online in multiple locations acts like the lures on a fisherman’s line.
So we sign up for everything; Big Give, Everyclick, Give a Car, Dinner4Good, etc because each of these sites contains a link to our website and a description of what we do. We also enter into link exchanges (where respective parties link to each other’s websites) especially with umbrella bodies for the sector. Our web analytics demonstrates that a number of visitors to our site have been referred from these other sites.
Briefly, our strategy was to firstly, build a user friendly website which provided value to donors and secondly, publicise both it and ourselves through integrated social media.
Feedback from donors suggests that the content uploaded from the field is much appreciated, with one quoted as saying; "Wow, that’s so brilliant!!I have goose-bumps reading that and knowing that my struggles paid off. I can’t tell you how wonderful that feels, now I just know that I did it all (an ultramarathon) for a good reason."
Through social media, we have been able to present ourselves to tens of thousands of people, using the amplification it provides. Relationships built through social media have led to articles written by us being shared by key thinkers within the water sector, connecting to many key people within the water sector who simply hadn’t heard of us before and setting up physical meetings with potential partners.
Statistically speaking we have seen a steady increase in web traffic as well; a 5 month period from the relaunch of our website saw a 126% increase in hits.
There have been lessons learned which should be useful for other small charities:
If you are a small organisation with a skeleton staff, use a website platform which is designed to be used by the man in the street, not an HTML genius. It saves time, money and makes you far more responsive.
Use all the free tools available to you – search engine optimisation, social media, secondary content on the web, Google grants. You never know when that one referral may lead to a significant donation or partnership.
As tempting as it can be to have all your social media platforms integrated – i.e. YouTube automatically posts to Twitter which then posts to Facebook, try to resist the temptation. Take time to tailor the same message to different audiences. It can look disjointed otherwise.
Always use the third person, being the voice of an organisation not an individual. I’ve seen other water charities whose social media manager seems to treat it as their personal account, chatting about totally irrelevant subjects in the first person.
Don’t try and convey every single piece of information you know on one web page. Build sites in layers. This avoids overwhelming people who want a simple summary but offers further detail to those who require it.
Enjoy the process. It’s an opportunity to share the issues you are passionate about with the world.
"Even relatively technical elements can be added to the website by consulting the Wordpress open source developer community."
"Where Twitter has really helped us is in terms of inter-sectoral networking."