Last week I was researching the charity sector for a potential copywriting project. It has become a very congested space, with at least 168,000 companies of all shapes and sizes operating in the UK. Good news, right? That’s more people trying to make society a better place. But if you are a charity, it also means more competition for someone’s money, goodwill and attention.
Charities are still most reliant on support from the public, with donations and purchases comprising more than 40% of their income in the sector according to the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO). Big brands such as Cancer Research still take the lion’s share of that with Management Today claiming that the top 2,500 charities get as much as 80% of the money. A year ago the Guardian reported that 1 in 5 charities were “struggling to survive”.
Inefficiency could be one factor but let’s look at it from another perspective – what comes in. Charities have a PR problem and that means people will be less likely to support the cause. There’s constant anger around exorbitant CEO wages. And scandals such as Kids Company and Oxfam have further eroded the public’s trust in charities, which has been on downward curve for a while.
Cuts to government funding at local and national level are real and continue to put the squeeze on all activities – from advocacy to administration – particularly in small- and medium-sized companies. The EU’s contribution to the third sector may be less than 1%, but Directory of Social Change policy officer Jay Kennedy has argued that “UK charities will have to fight even harder to be heard” post-Brexit.
In these circumstances, larger charities are most likely to prevail because of the strength of their brand. Although organisations have become more savvy about how they deploy limited budgets and harness social media to prompt action, you still see one too many examples of disaster porn, guilt tripping, insensitivity and pure stupidity.
Great ideas always cut through and they need not be laden with the latest bells and whistles. A good old-fashioned poster can still be just as powerful and empathy inducing as a virtual reality headset. That said, time-saving innovations such as Alexa Donations are no-brainers.
So what are my favourites? Here’s a diverse list of campaigns that are both original and cleverly executed. They may not have generated the highest levels of engagement or donations, but I admire the ambition and craft. If there is a common thread it is this: make people care. You can do that my telling a story or putting the reader/audience in someone else’s shoes. Just make sure it's the cause that people remember rather than the novelty of the ad.
1. RNIB (Royal National Institute of Blind People) – #C4SightAdBreak (2017)
Following on from that genius ad break for deaf and hard of hearing viewers during the Paralympics, a year later Channel 4 partnered with the RNIB to raise awareness of National Eye Health Week. Over a series of commercials from the likes of Paco Rabanne and Specsavers, viewers experience what it’s like to live with conditions such as cataracts and glaucoma. They used a visual filter to mimic the effects of each condition. So in the case of glaucoma, for example, we see a black filter creeping in from the edges, gradually obscuring the whole picture. The break was a big hit on social media and among the visually impaired because it allowed us to see the world through their eyes.
2. National Centre for Domestic Violence (NCDV) – House Hunt (2013)
Here’s one for the copywriters. Although this NCDV TV ad is several years old, I keep coming back to it because of its cold precision. The chilling language, brutal economy of phrase and subtle delivery… On the surface, this is just another viewing, possibly an ad for an estate agent. But listen closely and you soon realise something’s not right.
“Double glazed so no one can hear your screams.”
“Ceramic floor tiles: easy to wipe up any mess and blood spills.”
“Be careful on these steep stairs. Easy to fall down … accidentally of course.”
“This is the spare bedroom. Not huge, but enough room to swing a punch.”
The viewer is in that house with the couple, in each dangerous situation described by the agent, as the walls close in. The sign off is equally to the point: “1 in 4 women suffer abuse behind closed doors. There is a way out.”
As good as it gets.
3. Teach First – Change Their Lives (2014)
Spoken word is like Marmite, particularly when the artist hooks up with a brand that seems too desperate to come across as authentic and of the people. I see you, Nationwide. This Vice article is a fair critique. Here’s the crux of it: “Perhaps spoken word is suffering the same fate as many forms of 20th-century protest. Over time it's been commodified by brands, educational bodies and charities, who in an effort to spread simple messages over an internet of impossibly small attention spans have softened the edges and removed the nuance, leaving a safe, metropolitan iteration in their wake."
Teach First could easily be in the line of fire. The charity that aims to tackle educational inequality, primarily through training teachers to work in low-income areas. Since 2002, they have developed more than 11,000 trainee teachers and built a network of over 7000 ambassadors. So how have they avoided the pitfalls of others?
There is real heart, nuance and variation in this performance by Sonny Green. This isn’t just a personal tail of woe. We get a clear sense of the what’s at stake, Teach First’s mission and the role each of us can play. Maudlin strings aside, the ad is well produced and evokes Green's vision. But it’s the words that leave the most lasting impact.
“The best teacher I ever had, showed me the magic in life. Made me grateful that I got eyes and hands to write. Helped me find my innocence in a young corrupted mind. Highlighted the demons in gun crime. Made me happy brought me sunshine. Its mad, how one word, one line … can change somebody’s whole life.”
4. Movember – Unmute – Ask Him (2017)
Movember is about so much more than annual adventures in facial hair. The charity wants to tackle men’s health on a global scale and aims to reduce the number dying prematurely by 25% before 2030. Since 2003, they have raised more than £400 million and funded over 1,200 men’s health projects.
This campaign for World Suicide Prevention Day 2017 is a very smart hack, which takes one insight on modern life – the fact that many of us watch videos on Facebook and Instagram with the sound muted – and harnesses it to raise awareness of the problem. They produced three clips of men demonstrating tasks such as how to change a bicycle tyre or making a basic fishing rod.
On the surface, everything appears normal. The lip movements roughly correspond to the subtitles. But once you unmute the videos, you hear what’s really on their mind. Let’s take the tyre example.
“Let me show you how to fix a flat” becomes “I’ve just been feeling a bit flat.”
“It’s almost ready to sit on and ride home” becomes “All I seem to wanna do is sit around at home.”
Whether this might be confusing is open to discussion. Perhaps the call to action could have been introduced earlier in each video. But I think Unmute – Ask Him gets to the point of the conversation for the target audience.
5. Depaul UK – Street Corners (2015)
Again, this one might be a bit too clever for anyone beyond copywriter types, but the execution is brilliant. Depaul UK is a well-established charity that finds volunteers to offer spare beds for 16-25s through its Nightstop programme. In 2017, they helped to provide 11,070 bed nights with 542 households opening their doors. But it wasn’t all good news: they had to turn away 205 young people due to a lack of hosts.
Back in 2015, prior to this campaign, the charity had seen demand for their services increase by more than 300% in just one year. So they needed to attract more volunteers. This outdoor campaign featured posters of copy placed on corners of buildings at six sites around London where homeless people might find themselves.
On one side you get all the anxiety and preconceptions of taking in a homeless person.
But when read across both sides, the poster actually makes a convincing argument in favour of helping. The creative team realised that the outdoor campaign could also travel through social media so they worked playfully with the urban environment to encourage passers by to snap and post.
* Bonus *
Sport England – This Girl Can (2015>)
I can't sign off without declaring my love for this one, along with everybody else. Although Sport England is not a charity – it’s a government-backed body – no other non-profit campaign has had quite the same impact across the board as This Girl Can. So it’s important to acknowledge the achievement.
Back in 2015, the body found that two million fewer girls and women between the ages of 14 and 40 took part in exercised compared to males. What’s more, 75 per cent said they wanted to feel more active. The problem was fear of judgment: having the wrong body shape, not being fit or skilled enough.
The strategy was flawless, from joining online conversations about exercise and seeding the #thisgirlcan conversation, to lighting the fire with that TV ad, following through with must-share posters/flyers and then letting individuals, and clubs/societies make it their own.
Sharon Jiggins, managing director of lead agency FCB Inferno, summed it up This Girl Can's impact: "The campaign has changed the written and visual language around exercise, painting a uniquely realistic picture of active women, each with a highly aspirational ‘don’t give a damn’ attitude.”
Some big data from last year:
- More than 37 million people have watched the film online, either on YouTube or Facebook
- More than 500k women have joined This Girl Can social media community
- More than 2.8 million 14- to-40-year-old women who recognise the campaign say they have done some or more activity as a result, while 1.6 million say they have started exercising
- Sport England has acquired more than 7,000 partners – from mums, bums and tums classes in small villages to the Premier League