This month I had an experience I'll never forget as I was best man as my friends Sam and Jess got married.
This is why, despite the nerves, giving a best man's speech can be easier than writing charity communications.
When talking to your supporters, you're much less likely to have their full attention. In the age of online information, we read things quickly in a spare moment and are accustomed to punchy and engaging content, otherwise we switch off. People tend to be on several charity mailing lists, so writing a charity newsletter is a lot like attempting to give a best man's speech with many other people in the room trying to talk over you.
Consider this: the average email open rate in the charity sector is 20%. Many charities fall below that. So for every five people that you write to, four of them won't even open it.
This is why we need to talk about charity mailings.
I receive regular updates from many charities and most usually have really interesting news to share. Some do this in a slick, engaging way. However, too many smaller charities rely on the old-fashioned method of sending a mass email with a PDF attachment which often wouldn't have looked out of place as a school or village newsletter 20 years ago. I find this off-putting, even if I know the charity will have something interesting to say.
There are many drawbacks to PDF newsletters:
There are many packages which enable you to manage your email subscribers, design newsletter templates and send them out in one click. This little technology upgrade will make a huge difference:
If you can design a PDF newsletter or do basic web page editing, you’ll be capable of using the software. The small amount of time that you invest up front in getting to grips with it and designing an email template will be completely outweighed by the ongoing time and efficiency savings.
There really is no excuse for persisting with PDF mailings – it’s time to get out of the dark ages! If you’d like some help to plan your charity’s communications or set up and use email marketing software, we'd be happy to help...
Finally, here are six extra tips for writing engaging and powerful mailings:
1. Consistent branding – use the same header image, logo, font styles, colours etc. to create a strong and trustworthy impression with your supporters.
2. Cut the jargon – some words that you use every day with colleagues will actually mean very little to your supporters. What you write needs to be 'human' and easy to understand. My pet hates are words like 'learners' (instead of children), 'facilitating' and 'capacity building'. Read communications sent by the largest charities like UNICEF and Save the Children and you'll see that every single word is carefully considered, accessible and crystal clear.
3. Use strong imagery – a powerful, relevant image can be the difference between a mediocre mailing and a great one. Like-for-like comparisons show that strong images increase click and response rates. So don’t just slot in any old image as your last act before pressing send.
4. Perfect your subject lines – email subject lines can also become a last-minute afterthought but a weak, vague or boring subject line may mean that people never even open your email. Your subject line is the first and sometimes the only thing that people see, so make it compelling and informative.
5. Don’t waste your words – often introductions accomplish very little other than boring people. For instance ‘Welcome to the latest edition of our newsletter. It’s been a busy month...’ is little more than a waste of words. A good newsletter doesn’t need to refer to itself – you should be grabbing attention immediately.
6. Prioritise your content – before writing a newsletter, think carefully about your priorities. Which one story do you want people to read the most? What is the single most important action that somebody should take after reading it? Use this to inform the order and layout of your stories. Some messages (like ‘sign up to our new event’ or ‘sign this petition’) will often do better as a single-theme email bulletin that stands out, rather than as part of a longer newsletter.
This blog is an adapted version of a blog first published on Eventbrite on 13 August 2015.
Christmas – there’s nothing quite like it, is there?
I’ve never quite lost the sense of magic and exhilaration I used to feel as a child. Honestly – I used to barely sleep on Christmas Eve. I lay awake for hours every year, way too excited to stay still long enough to even think about sleeping.
Surprisingly, it wasn’t the thought of presents that got me going. I was more excited about just seeing Father Christmas in action, with his sack of presents over his shoulder. To find out whether he had eaten the carrot and glass of milk I had left outside my door. I had read so many magical Christmas stories and watched so many films that it all just seemed so real, and I wanted to see it for myself.
It seemed unfair that I’d spend so many hours tossing and turning but, as soon as I dropped off to sleep, Father Christmas would know to come. So I devised ways of making sure I didn’t sleep through the magical moment. I remember trying one year to lay a trip wire across my bedroom floor, hoping he’d end up making enough noise to wake me up.
As the traps got more creative, so too did my parents’ excuses. “Father Christmas said he left your presents outside your door this year because he was running late and in a hurry.” My poor parents, but they were always one step ahead of me.
The point of all this festive nostalgia is to demonstrate just how powerful stories can be. They can have a huge impact on adults and children alike. A good story burns an image onto our brain that we cannot forget quickly. This can have a big effect on the way we behave and communicate with others.
Many companies are brilliant at exploiting the power of storytelling for commercial gain. We were barely into November when John Lewis launched their Christmas advert featuring a heart-warming tale about a lonely penguin. Then along came Sainsbury’s with their hotly-debated World War I themed advert. Crucially, neither advert even mentions what you might expect to find in their stores. They are all about the story, and the way this makes you feel.
Increasingly, charities are using the same approach to great effect. We live in a world where thousands of charities are competing for our donations and attention. People understandably become desensitised to charitable messages, so creating an inspiring and memorable story is a great way to stand out from the crowd.
As a charity, you will have some of the most powerful and inspiring stories to tell. You work with people who battle against personal challenges and show huge courage in the face of adversity. Your heroic supporters pour their time and energy into creative and selfless fundraising efforts.
Using stories is such a great way of explaining your vision of a better world and what needs to change in order to achieve this. Stories are not only memorable and easy to understand, they are also easy for your supporters to share with others. In a world where we are all so connected virtually if not physically, this is really powerful.
It’s not only about communicating with your supporters. You need all your staff and volunteers to feel motivated and proud of what your charity does, and be willing to spread the word to others. Again, there’s no better way of doing this than with a good tale.
Many of you will be familiar with the incredible story of Stephen Sutton. Stephen had been battling cancer since the age of 15 and, in late 2012, was told that it was incurable.
He responded by creating his own Facebook group called Stephen’s Story, publishing his Bucketlist of 46 things he wanted to achieve in the near future and setting up an online fundraising page aiming to raise an initial £10,000 for Teenage Cancer Trust.
His story became known across the world. He became a motivational speaker and a symbol of hope and inspiration for millions of others. When Stephen passed away in May 2014, there was an outpouring of grief but also celebration of his life.
Stephen eventually raised over £4million for Teenage Cancer Trust and a huge amount of awareness. There are now plans for every school in the UK to teach teenagers how to spot the early signs of cancer, an initiative inspired by Stephen’s story.
One ordinary boy with an incredible attitude and a positive yet simple personal story. Millions of people inspired to take direct action in a way that no statistic or traditional appeal could have achieved.
Using stories to make content more appealing, personal and memorable is something we can all do. That’s why my own blogs have featured tales of gender-confused kittens and week-long obsessions with Bourbon biscuits.
I recommend you check out a brilliant website called Good News Shared which demonstrates the power of storytelling for charities on a daily basis. In response to a world dominated by negative and sad news stories, Good News Shared focuses on the positive and inspiring work done by charities and social enterprises. It features some brilliant stories so is well worth a visit if you’re looking for some inspiration for your charity.
To mark the Christmas period and the reappearance of some classic festive tales, I wanted to share my six top tips for how your charity can tell its own powerful story in 2015:
1. Keep it positive – evidence shows that people are growing tired of ‘traditional’ charity appeals about suffering and pain. The best charity campaigns increasingly talk about hope and change. Instead of upsetting people into donating, try inspiring them instead. That doesn’t mean you should avoid reality, but make your overall message upbeat and make sure you have a happy ending.
2. Faces not figures – a good personal story is always more memorable than even a powerful statistic. Make your story about one memorable individual. Use photos and some background information about that person to make it feel more real and have a bigger impact.
3. Mix your media – there’s no way around it: too much text makes people switch off. These days we expect to be engaged in other ways. We watch more videos. We listen to more audio books. A one-minute Christmas video story told by your CEO is a great way to stand out from the crowd and share something that people will really remember.
4. Make it easy to share – why do all the hard work yourself? Your direct communications will only ever reach a fraction of your supporters, but each individual has the potential to spread the word to others. Encourage supporters to share your stories and make them easy to be shared – clear, memorable and not too long. The message should be inspiring and bursting with pride. Think about what would be likely to captivate you so much that you couldn’t resist sharing it with others.
5. Fundraisers, not just beneficiaries – you may feel naturally inclined to talk most about those people you have helped or who desperately need your support. But what about your amazing fundraiser who went the extra mile to raise a huge amount for the cause? Inspire your supporters by talking the everyday people who are supporting your work and you’ve got a great chance of inspiring others to do the same.
6. What happens next? – there’s a difference between feeling motivated by a cause and knowing what to do next. Don’t leave your supporters wondering what they can do to help. Finish with a clear message about what you want them to do – that could be a request to donate a certain amount, sign up to an event or share a story with 100 others. This is known as the ‘call to action’ and getting it right will help your story to achieve a whole lot more.
I hope that you all have a lovely break this Christmas and come back bursting with inspiring stories to share in 2015. Remember to get in touch with me if you ever want any advice.
Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!
Last month my girlfriend and I decided to liven up our lives by adopting two kittens from a rescue centre in East London. We called them Rupert and Jasmin and they’ve settled in brilliantly – but there’s a small problem.
It’s not scratch marks in the sofa or even the time that one kitten started playing manically with a jingly ball during an important conference call. No, it’s all in the names. You see, based on our poor judgement and some questionable advice from the rescue centre, we got the kittens the wrong way round when naming them. We now have an adorable little girl called Rupert and an inexplicably angry young male called Jasmin.
The connection with charities and fundraising seems tenuous, but there is a useful lesson in this. Making key decisions can be difficult, particularly when you don’t have a process in place to help you get them right.
For small charities, all kinds of decisions can be difficult to make and fraught with anxiety. Whether you’re considering relocating to a new office, recruiting a fundraiser or deciding which potential income stream to invest in, the stakes can be high. If you don’t have large reserves and you get a critical decision wrong, you may put the survival of the organisation in jeopardy. So there’s a natural tendency to be risk-averse.
On top of that, many charities lack in-house strategic expertise. Of course, Trustees are there to help – but put yourself in their shoes for a moment.
As I know myself, being a Trustee means that you are legally accountable for the decisions you make. Yet you will receive no financial rewards for making the right call, however strategically brilliant it is. Try putting most people in that position and see if they’ve got any hunger to stick their necks out and take risks.
Alex Swallow, former Chief Executive of the Small Charities Coalition and Programme Director of the Charity Leaders' Exchange, is a real authority on this subject. He told me that “smaller charities are often grappling with a number of options which can seem mutually incompatible.
“Things like wanting to get the best person for a role, while knowing they can't pay the best price. Or wanting to bring in specialists, while knowing that there is so much to do that everyone needs to be a generalist. Or wanting to grow the charity to safeguard the future, when the risk is that making the investment to do that could put the charity in jeopardy.
“In this context, having a good strategic plan to follow and the tools to make strategic decisions on a daily basis are crucial.”
I would recommend three things to help you make better and more confident decisions:
1. Involve the right people – building a strong and diverse Board means that you can call on a range of different perspectives. Don’t just recruit people who know the cause well – strong leaders from all fields and those who bring commercial experience are crucial.
2. Do your research and base your decisions on sound knowledge. Who are the experts in the area and what do they say? What have other charities done in similar circumstances? Often others have done a lot of the hard work for you. For instance, if you’re writing a fundraising strategy, you absolutely must read a paper called Gimme Gimme Gimme by nfpSynergy. It’s a brilliant introduction to some key principles of fundraising and the different fundraising opportunities that may be open to your organisation.
3. Approach the process methodically – key decisions shouldn’t be evaluated emotionally or dictated by the person who puts their point across most forcefully. Valuable insight can come from many different voices and there are some established processes and tools out there to help you harness this.
With this in mind, I’d like to introduce you to something called Operational Research.
Piers Horner is a professional Operational Research analyst who makes a living analysing data and developing processes so that organisations can make smarter and more effective decisions. He believes that a lot of the tools used in his line of work could make an enormous difference to the small charity sector.
Piers explains: “Operational Research is often referred to as ‘the science of decision-making’. On a strategic level, it provides approaches to coping with complicated or 'messy' decisions.
“This can help you to understand your customers or stakeholders better and ensure their buy-in to crucial decisions. It encourages you to ensure that you factor in the widest possible range of cross-cutting issues to your thinking. This can often help you to identify counter-intuitive solutions to strategic problems.
"Put simply, Operational Research gives you more control over strategic decision-making.”
Let’s look at a practical example of this in action. Imagine that your charity is weighing up a potential relocation. It was founded in Suffolk and opened an office there because it was convenient for the first members of staff. It has now grown substantially, needs bigger premises and is considering a permanent move to London.
There are potentially many advantages to moving, including access to a bigger talent pool of potential staff and the ability to meet more frequently with key funders and donors. There are also disadvantages – rent would be much more expensive, and current staff would find it difficult to keep their jobs.
It’s an incredibly important and difficult decision to make. Everybody understands the broad reasons for and against the move, but they all have different priorities and emotions are involved – inevitably so, because people’s livelihoods are at stake. Arguments are just around the corner and there is a risk that the loudest voices will end up deciding what happens.
This could be avoided if you use something called MDCA – Multi-Criteria Decision Analysis. It’s much more exciting than it sounds!
Senior staff begin by making a list of all the possible criteria that should be considered when making the decision. They discuss each one and, as a group, give it a weighting score based on how important it is to the overall picture. This provides a sound platform for the decision they need to make.
Next they weigh up the two possible choices (moving to London or staying in Suffolk) against the agreed criteria, giving each choice a score. In theory, calculating all the scores and weightings will show what is the best decision.
However, this isn’t the end of the process. People may be surprised by the results and, in the process of scoring the decisions, they may realise that some criteria are more or less important than they thought. They can now revisit the criteria, re-run the scoring process and bingo – they have a result.
If this all sounds very scientific, that’s because it is.
Approaching decisions in this way has several advantages. It allows people to identify the factors are important to them, discuss them openly and understand how they affect the final decision in a very transparent way. This often helps people to realise if they are arguing something from one entrenched point of view without considering other perspectives.
The final decision may not be a perfect choice for everyone, but it will be the best possible compromise. Those involved will appreciate the fair and logical process and will be much more likely to support and engage with the decision taken.
This is just one of several established techniques that can replace anxiety and controversy with logic and confidence in your strategic discussions. In the interests of time, it’s the only example I’ve included here!
I’ve been working with Piers to explore how Operational Research techniques can be applied for charities. This is particularly relevant when it comes to fundraising strategy.
I’ve seen many charities begin the process of developing a fundraising strategy by writing a SWOT analysis. It’s a great way to examine what you do well, where you struggle and where there are future opportunities and risks. Often charities do this well but the process goes no further. When you read the final strategy, too many of the key opportunities and risks have not been addressed.
Operational Research techniques can be used to ensure that all those involved in developing a fundraising strategy keep ‘the bigger picture’ in mind every step of the way. Your final strategy should be more than a list of ideas and plans. It must be the blueprint to address the challenges you need to face.
I’ll soon be adding some free resources to my website to help you apply some of these techniques. I can also run workshops to help you develop your approach to strategic planning or to evaluate one key strategic decision. Knowing about the processes I've mentioned above is a great starting point, but to get the most value out of Operational Research it really helps to have an independent 'facilitator' who is experienced in applying them.
I’d love to discuss this with you so please get in touch if you think I can help.
And in case you were wondering, our biggest ‘strategic dilemma’ at home remains unresolved. Fortunately our poor kittens seem blissfully unaware of their naming crisis. Piers hasn’t yet suggested an Operational Research technique to help with that. So if this blog has been helpful and you would like to return the favour, please leave a suggestion below!
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