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Charities must adopt digital or die

It is no secret that small and medium-sized charities often rely on donations from larger charities which align with their goals. Similarly, it is not undercover that these charities also rely on fundraising volunteers — who add a great deal to revenue — through their incredible and inspirational work in direct sales, community events, and… cake-baking.

I do not disparage any of these techniques; in fact, I welcome them. However, what the third sector needs to realise is that the market is shifting even within their own areas of expertise. Like any market – and the harsh reality is that the charity sector is part of the market – fundraising, communications, events management and the entire marketing mix need to be brought into the 21st century if we are to survive.

We know what small-to-medium charities do. It doesn’t matter if they fill in the gaps left by austerity, if they work in partnership with existing government departments, if they cover a local area to alleviate a condition – or indeed a mixture of all three, they need a coherent communications strategy.

When I was approached to become the Communications Trustee for First Steps ED, an eating disorders charity based in Derby, but operating throughout the East Midlands, one of the first things I recommended was changing the charity’s name. Its website and its social media presence was limiting: we called ourselves First Steps Derbyshire, despite the fact that we’d contracts in Nottingham and beyond.

That initial attempt to open the charity to the East Midlands as a whole was controversial, but was adopted. I am pleased to say that it has been a success: with our fantastic Contracts & Grants Manager, other staff and the board, we have gone from strength-to-strength to extend. We’ve moved into Chesterfield and Loughborough, and I’m not sure that we could have done this without changing the name.

The second act, using my experience in politics, was to implement a social media implementation scheme, which was targeted at specific audiences. We have gone from strength-to-strength in this area, with targeted advertising to those who either need to receive our message of support, to those who need to see the message that we can up-skill their staff in continued professional development. This isn’t hard work: you simply have to identify your core audience and spend a few beans on social media and professional media outlets, such as that on which I am posting.

The third act that I made was to ensure that our website was open to a more corporate feel, where we could integrate both our service model and to showcase our achievements. This, at first, did not work; dwell time on the website reduced, and so did referrals. But I learnt from those mistakes by ensuring that we pulled it back and ensured that the site became more service-user facing, alongside having the corporate element.

The fourth was to obtain a Google Grant for AdWords. I’m pleased to say that we are experimenting with this presently. The people at Google are fantastic, considering that they offer thousands of dollars of free advertising for charities who obtain the grant.

The fifth was to ensure that we were GDPR compliant with our new mailing list, after I had seen a subpar newsletter going out prior to my coming on board. We switched to MailChimp, and in doing so, our click-through ratio has increased exponentially.

Further, there are modifications to the website such as directly selling our CPD products and tickets to functions and gigs, which are proving successful.

All of this brings me back to the entire point: Why do small-to-medium sized charities continue to rely on a small number of grant funders whilst not exploring other options? Why aren’t those charities doing what the bigger ones are, showcasing their Ambassadors’ and volunteers’ work?

I went dry in January for First Steps ED and managed to raise £200. This might not sound like a lot, but when we have volunteers running marathons and joining in community events for us, it all adds up – and this is driven by social strategy.

What we must also continue to keep in mind is that people also donate to charities in legacy giving. What is wrong with mailshotting potential donors – DPA (2018) permitting – to ask them for their assistance? Nothing at all. This is how and why bigger charities have gone from strength-to-strength.

In short, small-to-medium charities aspiring to grow need to adopt the new landscape. If they don’t, they will die. It’s as simple as that.

If you’re reading this and you’re a member of staff for fundraising/comms/marketing, or a trustee like me, and these things haven’t yet gripped you, I would recommend that you start firstly with your website and social media presence. Everything else comes from there.

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