The charity sector had its heyday in the 80s and 90s. Impassioned (and sometimes angry) celebrity champions such as Bob Geldof shouted, ‘give us your fucking money!’ through the TV – and huge numbers did.
The scale of support for charitable causes was perhaps a reaction to the greed of the time, a materialism offset that balanced things out and helped people feel good about themselves. People tipped their cash into buckets or pledged over the phone during the era of telethons because it aligned them to an activity that was thoroughly worthwhile and unquestionably good. The media loved charity, celebs loved charity, and everyone wore as many charity wristbands as they could.
Fast-forward a dozen or so years and the landscape had changed, the messages had become confused and the causes had been forgotten in a stream of bad press. Repeated scandals eroded our faith; the media, once a champion, became a significant factor in this erosion. Everyone started to ask: does the money really get to where it should?
The summer of 2015 saw the tragic suicide of Olive Cooke, a 92-year-old pensioner and the UK’s longest-serving poppy seller. Cooke had allegedly become overwhelmed by the relentless pressure from the many charities asking for a share of her small pension.
Nearly three years on from this tragedy and following well-publicised investigations into both Olive’s death and charity fundraising practices in the sector as a whole, public trust is slowly being regained as charities have responded by working to get their houses in order. But is the sector as a whole going far enough?
The charity sector and the creative industry
Charities work widely with the creative services industry. We at Conran Design Group have worked with the charity sector for more than 20 years, creating and building brands to connect with donors and campaigns that give a clear sense of the charity’s purpose. We’ve seen first-hand the pressures and complexities faced by the sector and worked to try and help address some of those challenges. Our experience has, on the whole, been very positive and we have worked with some fantastic organisations and many talented and committed people. As an industry however, our view would be that there are far too many charities in the UK fighting for the same donor ‘pound’.
David Craig, author of The Great Charity Scandal, wrote: “Britain’s registered charities claim that almost 90p in every £1 donated is spent on ‘charitable activities’. But according to a 2015 study, the real figure is likely to be less than 50p in every £1.”
Even if the proportion is higher, it would still suggest the need for a reappraisal of the industry structure. Charitable giving is a vital part of our social system but taking a commercial viewpoint, is it time to explore a more effective organisation of resources and more sustainable ways of gathering, managing and distributing donations to the causes and the people that really need them?
Time for a more fundamental rethink?
We in the creative industry have unwittingly contributed to the problem: more brands, more campaigns, more messages and images. It all adds up. More noise, more clutter and more confusion. The increase in the number of charities and charitable campaigns has made an already congested landscape even harder to navigate and understand.
Our industry needs to take its share of responsibility and to help support a change that builds trust in the organisations that represent the best in us.
We work in design and feel passionate about its role because we believe it is a catalyst for change. It has the potential to connect ideas at an emotional level with people and change behaviour for the better. We are proud of the work that we have done over the last two decades; some of it has genuinely made a difference to awareness and consequently funding for some extremely important causes.
But as a creative partner to the charity sector, our commitment in 2018 is to be more self-critical about the briefs we take on and the work we do. We realise it is a modest contribution to a huge challenge, but we are determined not to add to the clutter.
There needs to be honest conversation within the third sector about what can be done to make things simpler, less confusing and more efficient. The focus and investment can’t continue to be on the business of competing for the same funds. This has been a big contributor to the erosion of public confidence and the ‘donor fatigue’ of the last few years.
Perhaps, rather than the proliferation of overlapping charities, there should be consolidation – fewer organisations aligned across causes, but with the flexibility to allocate funds to different areas; for example, research vs care. If this helped create a simplification of the sector, the potential efficiencies could be considerable. And for those looking in from the outside, it would also be far easier to understand and support.
Now at the Conran Design Group, we are only going to contribute in areas where we believe the work we do will make a meaningful contribution to a positive outcome. We will take on less work with fewer organisations, but we hope the net effect for the sector will be positive. Greater clarity of message and more streamlined communications should help to build greater confidence with donors and volunteers.
We all want to feel confident that what we are doing is effecting real change for those who really need it.
Thom Newton is chief executive and managing partner of the Conran Design Group