Charities: Don’t Start with Why

When Simon Sinek published his 2009 book, ‘Start with Why’, his central premise was that people won’t truly buy into a product, service, or idea unless they understand the ‘why’ behind it.

It was a neat idea, eagerly adopted by branding agencies, showing up in charity brand strategies soon after. ‘Start with Why’ looked like a no-brainer for non-profits. After all, the sector is fuelled by the best of human motivations – so foregrounding them above all else would surely be a recipe for success. It led to a marked shift in how charities communicate, focusing more on the values they espouse, and less on the change they seek to make.

The trouble is that as a culturally homogenous sector, most charities have reached similar conclusions. Values like ‘solidarity’, ‘determination’, ‘compassion’, ‘courage’ and ‘humility’ now bounce around in charity brand books. These are great values, of course, but they’re undifferentiated – telling you as much about sector trends as the organisation itself. Meanwhile, far less attention is given to the impact charities aim to achieve, with their strategic themes often going unexplored and unprioritised, as if the brand has no part in shaping the strategy.

At its worst, ‘Start with Why’ can create a hubristic, self-regarding tone, doubtless unintended, but nonetheless incongruous in any organisation whose central purpose is to serve others.

I admit, I’m dialling it up. This characterisation is not absolute, it’s a matter of emphasis, and there are a lot of exceptions. But in totality there is an effect. Differentiation and purpose in the sector are becoming lost to homogeneity and introspection.

I’m pretty sure Simon Sinek didn’t mean that to happen.

For consumer brands, this emphasis on the intangible over the tangible makes sense. If your mobile phone network or toothpaste brand is functionally more or less the same as the next one, then you have to find differentiation in the intangibles. Hence the toothpaste brand that wants you to be your best self, the one that wants to make your family happy, or that wants you to buy in to its artisanal backstory.

But in the charity space – where real and extraordinary things happen every day – putting the intangibles centre stage just isn’t necessary. Nor does it seem to work.Very few, if any, charities or NGOs can sustain the level of public exposure needed to impress upon the world the nuances of their brand architecture. In my couple of decades researching non-profits, I can’t think of a time when a focus group said, “Ah yes, they’re the innovative ones that act with humility and always keep their promises”.

But in truth, audiences don’t much care about this stuff anyway – and some of the value propositions more popular within non-profits can be bewildering to outsiders. For example: “We act in solidarity with people living in poverty around the world”, is often met with an eye roll (“Easy to say that from here!”). Others are met with incredulity: “We don’t know the solutions, our communities do”, being a firm fixture in this category.

I don’t mean to overstate this, such positioning gives vital context to the charity message, but it is hardly the message itself. No, what a focus group will do – above all else – is try to guess what you do. So why make them guess? Here’s the thing: those that know more about what you do, like you better. Our CharityTracker shows this every day.

Why does this matter?

Fundraising income is sliding in the UK, and has been for some years. Income isn’t everything, but it is obviously important, and a pretty good proxy measure for a charity’s general standing.

Most ascribe this decline to an erosion of trust in the charity sector, triggered by hostile media scrutiny in the mid-to-late 2010s. Trust must have been a factor, but if that was still the case, then you’d expect to find trust levels in continued decline, or at least remaining low.In fact, they are steadily recovering. Our CharityTracker shows that trust in health charities has gained ten points (56% to 66%) over the past five years, while the same measure for international development charities (among the least trusted categories) has also risen ten points (29% to 39%). Other indicators have improved too, such as the negative perception that charities overpay their staff, which has dropped five percentage points from 35% to 30%. Overall, trust in charities is overwhelmingly higher than any other sector in the UK.

So, if trust doesn’t give the whole picture, what else is happening?

I think the bigger issue today is relevance.

Since those rocky years in the 2010s, the ‘cause’ space has been transformed. Crowded out by the rise in purpose-driven consumer brands, grassroots activist movements and peer-to-peer fundraising (to name just three), charities need to work harder now to show their relevance and the unique space they occupy.

Worryingly, in one of our recent research projects (publishing soon) we found GenZ and Millennials were more likely to name consumer brands or social media influencers than charities, when asked who is making the biggest difference on social causes. Similar themes are showing up in a project we’re doing in partnership with the GOOD Agency and the Chartered Institute of Fundraising, ‘Tomorrow’s Donor Today’, looking at changing donor motivations. The final instalment of that is coming out this spring.

How should charities respond? Mimicking consumer brands or grassroots movements seems unlikely to achieve the differentiation charities need. Better, surely, to play to one’s strengths. Three questions:

You are purpose led, so what – specifically – do you aim to achieve in the next few years?

You act only in the interests of the people you serve – what are those interests, which people, and can you authentically show that you represent them, or better still help them get heard? (Animal or environment charities: OK, sorry not ‘people’ – feel free to switch a few words around)

You offer supporters a way to effect change – what exactly do you want them to do, and can you explain to them what difference they can make?

Defining your values matters – they keep you motivated and help you connect with audiences – but not at the expense of doing the much harder work of finding focus and picking your lane.

It’s more inspiring to tell people your purpose, than to tell them you’re purposeful.

After all, these are hard times, and people are looking for answers. What they really want to know is what you’re trying to achieve, what you can do for them, and what they can do to help. Not a ‘why’ in sight.

If you can answer these questions (I mean, really answer them) then relevance will be restored and the rewards will follow.

If you can’t, you’re toothpaste.

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