Help for not for profit and charity trustees

Comms III

this is the last of three posts on the subject of communications

In the previous posts, I suggested that the first task was to decide on with whom you wanted to communicate. Books on marketing talk about segmenting the audience which is sound advice for commercial firms. It is relevant to small charities and when I saw such advice from a consultancy firm it made me think about this topic and to write these three posts.

The second post discussed what the message should be recognising that different audiences may have different needs. So your message to a homeless person will be quite distinct from that to a housing officer in a local authority for example, or to a potential funder.

Having decided on the who and the what, the next step is the how. I am suggesting that if you have decided on the first two, this latter step is a lot easier.


  • the importance of a clear message. Sometimes referred to as the elevator test, this is the business of being able to say in a few words what it is you do. This can be surprisingly difficult. Being succinct can be very hard! It is almost best done as a group exercise. I offer one tip: print out some other charity’s examples (doesn’t matter what type of charity or not for profit) and pin them up. Invite criticism. This will often produce interesting insights where people say they don’t understand it, does it mean they do x? or it’s too long winded. This can be helpful in looking at your own efforts.
  • an aspect of this clear message is the need to convey integrity and good governance. This will vary greatly depending on the charity and I admit it’s hard to do, after all, the very word ‘governance’ is a switch off for many. The fact is after the Oxfam scandal and Kids Company (now mostly overturned), people are rather more suspicious of charities so you do need to be aware of this topic. Stressing security, whether staff are subject to DBS checks are part of the picture.
  • providing evidence of success. This is especially important with fund-raising and recruiting volunteers. People want to know that their pennies will go to a worthwhile cause or helping you more directly will produce positive results. A few statistics are useful as are stories or examples. Keep them short, keep them honest and don’t overclaim what you did.
  • Stories. People are not on the whole convinced by statistics and studies show that many do not understand them. Narrative and stories – which you are likely to need for the website – are more effective on the whole. Easier said than done and it has been my experience that writing good stories is not easy. They can be too long; too focused on activity and the problem and not sufficiently on results, and can fail to explain properly what your organisation did to improve matters or make a difference. They can often read more like reports. You may need to bring in someone from outside with writing skills.
  • Good graphics. It matters, sad to relate although not for all charities. You are judged by your looks. I know this statement is hard for some who work in charities to accept. It’s part of the brand image – the collection of things including your look, the words, the name and all that goes to give that instant impression of who you are and what you stand for. An example here is those collective events where charities attend (in libraries and town halls). Go round these and you see stand after stand with cluttered displays, tables groaning with a plethora of materials and an overall impression – and I’m really sorry to write this – of confusion, lack of clear messages and amateurishness.
  • Have a plan. This is about the what, the who and the how but it needs a timetable to answer the question ‘how often?’ A lesson from marketing is what they call ‘reinforcement’. People seldom buy as a result of a single message. It needs repetition. So you need a plan of what you are going to say, how you are going to say it and how often.
  • Different audiences. To repeat, you must think which audience needs to know what. One size does not fit all. It is hard to go much further with this paragraph because each not-for-profit is so different from the others. Some may have multiple audiences, others few. Some audiences are informed and can be addressed with a number of assumptions of prior knowledge, others not. Beware of acronyms.
  • Having a website is a standard requirement now and it is possible to create simple ones with WordPress for example (this is!) but what other social media to use need thought. It will depend on your audience and it’s back to who: who are you trying to communicate with and what social media are they using? Google analytics enable you to research your readers but this may not be of that much use to your charity. You can spend a lot of money developing an all-singing and all-dancing site with lots of bells and whistles, but what matters is ease of use and content. If you have to go back to the website builder because it’s all too difficult for your own staff to add posts, it’s costly and time-consuming. And all media need content.
  • Finally KISS which if you don’t know is ‘keep it simple stupid’. There can be a tendency for away-days – whether informed by a consultant, a leader or otherwise – to try too hard and for things to be over complicated and too detailed. Remember that people have short attention spans. You may only have seconds to make an impression or gain someone’s attention. Less really is more.

And do not forget feedback. Communications may involve a lot of staff effort and possibly money as well so you want to know what works. It’s not easy but one method is to ensure you keep a record of where your enquiries are coming from. So with all physical, telephone and email enquiries, you need to establish how did you hear of us?

I hope this is of some help. I would certainly welcome comments and feedback.

Peter Curbishley

Author of How to be a Successful Trustee.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: