Volunteer Britian?

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Well done Lord Coe for highlighting the importance of volunteers and for calling on the nation to step up its efforts to encourage more people to give their time.

After the boom in enthusiasm for volunteering focused on the Olympics last year it appears the 70,000 “games makers” is not translating into a sea change in volunteer involvement in the UK ( Sunday Telegraph). But one of the key PR messages to come out of the Olympics has perhaps been missed.

The secret to encouraging people to give the time to good causes is not their recruitment – important and challenging though this is – but in ensuring that the people who do volunteer are appreciated and valued for their input and rewarded when they perform well. For too long volunteering has been seen by the Third sector as “free labour”, and the culture has been one of organisations taking rather than giving. This, in my opinion, is partly why volunteering in the UK never takes off in the way it could.

Traditionally there has been too much focus on the role of volunteers and too little on what the volunteers themselves get out of the experience. Certainly the Olympics couldn’t have happened without the volunteers – and whilst altruistic desire to see the games succeed will have been part of what made individuals come forward, the real drivers were much more personal factors, such as challenge, personal development, developing business opportunities, learning new skills and let’s not underplay it – sheer fun.

People working in the Third Sector responsible for persuading people to volunteer and for managing them when they do come forward need to switch their messaging focus from what’s in it for the charity or cause to what’s in it for the individual.

In 1961 JFK said “… ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” Perhaps managers and communicators in the Third Sector could re-phrase this and say “Ask not what your volunteers can do for you – ask what you can do for them.

Horses for Courses

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Well done the Creation Trust based in Aylesbury for their clever use of text messaging ( See Guardian article here ).

One of the big temptations in the communications business is to be drawn to the latest, most shiny toys to get your message across. Yet often the old ways are the best.

In this case the Creation Trust used text messaging to promote their work with great success, a positive result they would not have obtained had they used other channels like Twitter or Pinterest perhaps.

Communication is all about understanding who you are trying to reach. Understanding your publics is not however just about shaping the messages, it’s also about identifying how to reach them. Often the old ways are the best and we can even extend this back to the tools we used before the digital wave broke over the industry. Events, face to face contact, leaflets and media work all still have a role to play. Certainly they may be used alongside digital tools, but it is the focus on the audience driving the mix of channels that is important.

Some of my chums in PR think I’m a dinosaur when I question their automatic focus on digital tools when formulating a communications strategy. It’s not that I am against the new tools we have at our disposal, but that I question whether they are always suitable for the target publics. We have choices and our choices should be based on who we are trying to reach, not what we enjoy or are excited by.

Horses for courses.

Olympic lessons

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With the Olympic flag now passed on to Rio we can certainly look back at a games which brought the best out of the country.

Two aspects in particular should resonate with the voluntary sector – the mobilisation of thousands of people as volunteers and the funding the games and individual athletes attracted from the private sector.

Both of these achievements were rooted in effective marketing and communication, and the way the “promise” of the games was sold to prospective sponsors and volunteers to get them involved.

Clearly most organisations don’t operate at the Olympic level, but like the thousands of Britons now taking to their bikes, spurred on by Team GB’s efforts in the velodrome, I belive many can find inspiration in how the games were delivered to help them attract support.

PR and marketing were never a bolt on extra for the Olympics – they were always central to the plan for success. Organisations hoping for growth and development in these straightened times could do no worse than follow the lead of the Olympics and set PR and marketing centrally in their operation.

Commerciality isn’t a crime

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Having worked in the Third sector for more than a quarter of a century, I’m well aware of the antipathy to the commercial sector held by many in not for profit organisations. Indeed most of my working life has been spent trying to get charitable organisations to recognise that professional communication is not just for the commercial sector.

Sadly this mistrust of the culture of commerce means the sector has for years been missing a trick when it comes to developing adaptability, economy and efficiency. Grant based income has essentially hobbled the development of the sector by allowing it to become comfortable and complacent. The harder economic climate of the past few years has therefore come as a shock to many who now seek other means of generating income.

This change to the economic environment may now be leading to a refreshing change in attitudes within the sector.

A poll run by the Guardian supported by an article by NCVO’s senior sustainability officer, Olaf Williamson, shows more than 80% of respondents (who will in the main be from the sector) are in favour of  the Third Sector improving its commercial instincts.

Working in PR I’d clearly support this, as marketing and the ability to tell a tale to engage clients, customers and partners is an essential part of viewing the world in a more commercial way and engaging not just to make money but to shape opinions as well.

And what could be better for the sector than that?

More on mergers

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It seems my thoughts on Charity mergers aren’t as unpopular as I thought.

The results of a Guardian voluntary sector network poll published today show that 62% of the respondents felt a merger would make their organisation more effective.

If you are one of those respondents and are looking for an easy to use pool of ideas and information try the Fusion Third Sector web site.

Thinking about mergers

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Mergers are on the agenda again in the not for profit sector according to Third Sector magazine. 

In this case it’s two big organisations who are looking to come together – but merging, or at least working in close partnerships –  is something organisations of all sizes should consider on a regular basis as part of their positioning strategy.

There is often a tendency to “go it alone” ploughing on irrespective of external factors in the Third Sector, especially in small to medium sized organisations where the managerial experience isn’t as extensive as it could be or where there is a strong “localist” feeling or identity which encourages too tight a focus on being self contained.

However this can lead to a situation where a number of small organisations end up working within an area on overlapping issues without co-ordination or co-operation. At one time this may have been sustainable, but in today’s economic climate this kind of competition cannot surely be justified.

A few months ago I helped set up a web site pooling a variety of resources around the issue of mergers and partnerships for the voluntary sector – Fusion Third Sector .

The site is designed to offer advice on the pros and cons of mergers and partnerships, and information to assist organisations wishing to explore them further or , indeed, go further.

Merging may seem a big step but no body should discount it and in my view every organisation should periodically look at its position and those of other organisations around it and at least consider the options for closer working relationships.

Chugging rises to the top again

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Like something nasty floating in a pond chugging has bobbed to the surface again.

Apparently Islington Council in London are taking legal advice as to whether they can stop it happening on their streets.


The Guardian newspaper conducted a poll on the back of this story in a section predominantly read by people involved in the Charity sector. It asked “Are Chuggers giving Charities a bad name?”. 54.3% of the respondents said yes , whilst 45.7% said no.

This response really depresses me as the 45.7% clearly still in favour of charity mugging obviously have no concept of the notion of reputation. In the face of a real issue forcing a Council to seek legal advice over stopping chuggers on its streets almost half of the respondents (most of whom remember are involved in the charity sector in some way) there are still people in denial that chugging is having a negative effect on the way charities are seen.

It’s time to wake up and smell the coffee. Delivering good works isn’t the only thing a charity is judged on – the way in interacts with potential funders, volunteers or supporters is also a factor in the development of their reputation. To ignore the negative impact of chugging, not just on individual charities using it , but on the sector as a whole is to ignore the value of reputation far beyond its impact on income generation.

PR the future for charity

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No hit or miss this post as it’s more about a personal experience.

It’s been a difficult couple of months, as the Charity I am a Trustee of reached the point in late Novemeber when it became clear that, on current expenditure and income, it would run out of funds  by September this year. Just over a year ago we learnt that the core funding we had always received from the County Council was to be withdrawn and re-allocated to a centralised organisation who would in turn contract local services from us.

From that point on the writing was on the wall and despite considerable efforts to raise funds through the year it was clear by the end of November that we would have to close some projects down.

As a Board of Trustees we are sure that we see a future for the organisation, and that this future is as a Social Enterprise, trading in a number of areas to raise funds which we can apply to less commercial activities.

So we are now in  a period of rationalisation, closing all but a handful of the Charity’s projects, and about to go into a period of planning a re-build and re-launch.

Now, “what does this have to do with PR?”,  I hear you ask. Well, our future will depend on delivering projects for our local community that both fill a need and can be run on a commercial basis and to do that we must really listen to the people in our community to understand what it is they need and shape how we might provide it. Luckily there is a project running in our area to sound out local people, and we will certainly be tapping into their findings as they emerge, but we must also develop new ways to engage with the population we serve.

This will be a big PR task, and a challenge to some within the organisation who are still rooted in traditional models of grant funded charity provision, but it will be what shapes our future and ensures that our community gets the services it deserves. A classic example of the central position communication can have in the sucess or failure of an organisation.

The times they are a changing

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I read a really refreshing perspective on the not for profit sector on the Gurdian’s Voluntary Sector e-newsletter this week.

Written by Helen Lang of Charity Pilot Light the article takes a fresh look at the position many organisations find themselves in at the moment stating that it is time for innovation within the sector and for innovation to thrive there must be a culture change.


I couldn’t agree more – in fact I belive years of reliance on hand outs in the form of grants has taken the spark out of the sector, removing the need for organisations to think about shaping their own future.

Helen says; “Challenging your organisation and reflecting on how things could change is essential if charities are to meet the changing needs in the sector. Stepping away from the day-to-day fire fighting and taking the time to think outside the box and consider new approaches might be the most valuable thing you could do this year.”

One thing organisations have to recognise is that they have to take communication seriously now. They are no longer in a position where the money arrived automatically every year with minimal requirements for accounting for it. Every pound will have to be earned now and that means telling people what you do and how well you have done it.

I use a quote from the American billionaire and latterly philanthropist, John Rockefeller in my training which sums this up. He said “Next to doing the right thing, the most important thing is to let people know you are doing the right thing” – and this is now more vital then ever for organisations needing to grab hold of their own destinies.