If you find yourself talking to someone about your charity in the pub or at the school gates, what do you tell them? Do you trot out your vision and mission statement, and those inevitable bullet points describing your main services? Is there a particular story you always tell?
I’ve been involved with many charities as a fundraiser, consultant, mentor and trustee. If you work for one of these organisations then you might want to look away now. Sorry, but when I tell someone about what your charity does, I rarely use your carefully crafted marketing language.
The unavoidable reality is that many causes are hard to explain, particularly in these times of austerity. Multiple disadvantage, multiple services for one beneficiary group, or one particular issue that affects multiple groups.
It’s often tricky to distil this into one concise, meaningful description. That bullet point list might sound ok on paper but it’s instantly forgettable when recited verbally. Staying 'on brand' can sound a bit…bland.
I think there’s a better way to engage people in what you do. Stop trying to tell them everything, and instead look for your ‘diamond in the detail’.
All the charities I really ‘click’ with and enjoy talking about have something in common. Amidst all their services, statistics and slogans, I’ve found a particular thing that for me really captures why they do what they do.
I spent five years at Link Community Development, a charity working to ensure children in sub-Saharan Africa receive a meaningful education. Link provides teacher training, quality assessments of schools and helps headteachers and district authorities to run schools better. The Millennium Development Goals focused on getting children into school but not what happened when they were there. So Link’s work was vital, but not very ‘sexy’.
Over time, by speaking to teachers and parents in South Africa and Malawi, I understood things better. Children growing up in countries ravaged by HIV/AIDS don’t miss school because they don’t want to be there. They stay at home to look after sick relatives, or work the land to earn money for their family because their parents are no longer with them.
Many people see children not attending school as the biggest problem. But for me, the burning injustice is encouraging children to walk five miles to school because it’s ‘the right thing to do’, meaning they can't perform a critical role in their families, then failing to provide them with an education that makes any difference when they get there.
This was my ‘diamond’ for explaining why Link’s work was so important. As a problem that urgently needed fixing, it meant so much more than saying ‘Link works in five countries in sub-Saharan Africa doing X, Y and Z to improve the quality of education in schools.’
But if you ask me about The Camden Society, this isn’t what I’ll tell you. Instead I’ll talk about their amazing apprenticeship programme, helping to arrange job trials for people who would otherwise lack the core skills to secure a role in the catering industry.
I’ll tell you about the apprentice I heard speak who knew he would never shine in a formal interview, but proved in a trial that he could prepare food more quickly than any of the regular staff. He secured a job where he could thrive and feel proud of his skills, and he’s not looked back since.
This is just one aspect of the charity's work, but it's the one I feel most comfortable and passionate talking about.
You don’t need to talk about the whole of what your charity does, or even focus on your main project. By finding your own ‘diamond in the detail’, you'll be able to explain things with more belief and passion. Crucially, this diamond may be different for every staff member or volunteer.
I've heard people find their own engaging ways to talk about their charity, only to be told that it's not on brand - which I think is a real shame.
It can be helpful to think of your charity as a cube. There are many sides to what you do. People can only see one or two sides at any one time, but those sides are still part of the whole shape.
Ultimately, is it better to give someone a concise and complete summary of what you do and hope they remember it? Or tell them one specific memorable thing that can be a ‘hook’ for finding out more later?
You might be willing to try this approach when talking to family and friends, but I’m convinced it can be just as effective with donors, funders or companies. So isn’t it time you found your diamond in the detail?
What particular diamond works best for your cause? Do you have some different advice for engaging people? We’d love to hear from you – please leave a comment below.