I’m sure you saw Andy Murray’s maybe-retirement announcement recently, and the media reaction to it. It was hard to miss.
Aside from the sporting implications, his display of human emotion felt all-too-rare. Most sportspeople give little away beyond guarded responses and cliches, seemingly ever-suspicious of media intrusion and conscious of sponsor obligations. In the often male-dominated world of sport, real emotion and honesty are frequently still associated with weakness. Yet the media response to this fateful press conference in Melbourne was overwhelmingly positive.
I’m not a huge tennis fan, but I’m fascinated by the transformation in Andy Murray's public reputation. Back in his early days, he had a reputation for being surly, bland and seemingly mistrustful of the media. In return, he was firmly portrayed as a Scottish rather than a British sportsperson, not helped when he made his infamous “anyone but England” comments ahead of the football World Cup in 2006!
While much of this transformation is down to sporting success, his personality and honesty have played a part. He’s not afraid to stand up to perceived injustices and voice his views on difficult issues such as gender equality and Scottish independence. And following his recent openness about his physical and mental struggles with injury and pain, his public stock has never been higher.
Watching Andy Murray reminded me just how refreshing, disarming and impactful authentic honesty can be. This is an under-used tool in the charity sector.
Charities are often brilliant at holding up a mirror to society and making people notice and care about injustice. But are we always good enough at holding up a mirror to ourselves? And what holds us back?
When you’re short of time, it can feel easier to present a simple, sanitised version of yourself and your work. Crafting messages about your struggles and weaknesses feels like it must be done carefully. After years of negative media coverage about charities, it's natural to want to present yourself positively: we know exactly what we’re doing, and every penny we spend goes to plan.
I don’t think it always has to be like this. Here are a few ways of showing your more honest side, and why it's worth the time and effort:
1. Show that your work is challenging and things don’t always go to plan
Many projects are complex to deliver. Talking about your setbacks gives people an insight into what your work is really like and makes them more emotionally invested. Think of the narrative of any good film or book - it's rarely plan sailing to the end, and the setbacks draw you into the story.
Great fundraising is often a response to adversity. For example, in 2014, Manchester Dogs' Home raised £1.2million in 48 hours after a devastating fire. Communities rally around organisations in times of crisis, particularly with the rise of crowdfunding. Hopefully you won't experience a disaster, but being honest and open about minor setbacks – for example if you experience a delay or issue with building work after a capital campaign – can help you to raise vital extra funds if needed.
2. Trusts and foundations reward honesty too
It’s not only public fundraising – honesty with funders usually pays too. With the precise focus on outputs and outcomes, we can often feel mortified if we're unable to deliver a project exactly as planned. However most funders are too experienced to expect everything to go as planned. If there's a hitch they’re usually on your side – they want things to go well too, and are often surprisingly willing to help.
I know one charity that's delivering a big six-figure project. They rely heavily on volunteers, but had struggled to find a good volunteer coordinator, and failed to achieve some outcomes as a result. Instead of disguising or finding excuses for this, they explained the situation honestly in their mid-project report. The funder’s response: how much would it cost to increase the hours of your volunteer coordinator post and pay a better salary to find the right person? A top-up grant of £10,000 was on its way a few weeks later.
3. Involve your supporters in decisions that affect them
I often see charities second-guessing how to communicate with their supporters. Would they prefer a monthly or quarterly newsletter? What types of story do they most want to hear about? Will they prefer Event A or Event B? Staff often have differing opinions, but rarely think about actually asking supporters.
Perhaps charities assume their supporters won’t appreciate the question – will they feel the charity should know the answer already, or simply not bother to respond? However, consulting your supporters on important decisions shows a willingness to learn and leads to better engagement and more reliable insights. The real honesty here is asking for advice, and admitting that you don't have all the answers.
4. Handling complaints well is worth its weight in gold
We all make mistakes sometimes, but it's too easy to respond with a weak excuse or with the defence that "we're just following our policy". Have you ever responded to a complaint with: “You know what, no excuses, we just got this wrong”?
Most supporters complain because they care, and want to give you a chance to get things right. They’re not trying to catch you out. They’ll usually understand if you made a mistake because, guess what, they also make mistakes sometimes. A well-written apology and honest explanation actually builds trust and appreciation for what you do - several times I've seen this not only salvage a relationship with a donor, but also lead to increased support.
5. Show the people and personality behind your work
Finally, being honest is also about showing what your work is really like – even if you look stressed, your desk is messy and your office is cramped! Showing the real you leads to empathy and familiarity more than judgement or criticism, in my experience.
In my first job in the sector, I ran a major student fundraising event. We frequently tried to post photos on social media of us sending out welcome packs, taking deliveries of T-shirts or welcoming new staff. Our fundraisers genuinely liked this – for some reason, most seemed to think we were running the event out of a broom cupboard, and were amazed that the charity had a ‘normal’ office! It helped people to get to know us and appreciate that we were a professional organisation doing a lot of work behind the scenes.
So thank you Andy Murray for the reminder about the power of honesty - and if you've got any other tips or stories about putting this into practice with your supporters or donors, we'd love a comment below!
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