There are now well over 165,000 registered charities in the UK, and that number is rising by around 5,000 a year. As you read this article another charity will be created somewhere in the country.
For supporters, this can make it tricky to hone in on the charity that plucks at their heartstrings enough to justify a worthy contribution. But for charities, it makes getting anywhere near those heartstrings a colossal challenge. How do they engage with an audience that is constantly bombarded with competing messages, often switching between traditional and digital channels and consuming messages across different devices?
Most charities don’t have budgets for glossy above the line marketing and advertising campaigns to help them stand out from the crowd, which means they have to be far more creative and ambitious to reach as many people as possible and inspire action. Although we occasionally see a campaign like the Ice Bucket Challenge, which raised $100m in just 30 days for ALS Association after capturing people’s imagination and being spurred along by celebrity dunkings, the chances of something similar coming along again are extremely slim. So, in the meantime, charities need to explore other ways to reach their audience.
Storytelling is something any charity can do, no matter the size, giving even the smallest charities a golden opportunity to get noticed and make meaningful connections. And it's nothing new. Humans have been telling stories since the dawn of time and it’s something the world’s biggest companies (think Nike, Airbnb and Apple) have been doing for years to build their brands. By taking cues from some of the most successful mainstream brands and putting storytelling at the heart of their comms, charities will not just increase visibility, they will really stand out, like the Terrence Higgins Trust which took its ‘Give the finger to HIV’ campaign to the streets during HIV Testing Week.
By their very nature charities are well placed for storytelling campaigns, using people to tell real stories about how donating can make a difference and not just relying on facts and figures.
One of the most powerful storytelling formats is film and while many charities might baulk at the thought of film, it doesn’t have to mean big budget or big production. Some of the most moving films have been shot using very little kit and in short timeframes.
For charities, film is a great addition to the content arsenal, allowing them to tell stories, connect with new audiences (especially across digital channels) and encourage action. The fundamentals of good communication still apply to video – understand your audience, have a good story to tell and come up with a great creative.
It may seem counter-intuitive, but the most watched charity films don’t actually talk about the charity. The focus should be on the cause and the people the charity is helping on an everyday basis, with the best films having the power to help people remember what you do long after they’ve finished watching. Thinking outside the traditional film format can also work. Mental health charity Mind encourages its fundraisers to grab their phone and record their stories, as well as asking people who have experienced mental health problems to make a video blog to share their story. These powerful real stories from real people are hugely impactful.
To give your film the best chance of being shared and talked about, you need to make the audience feel something. Your film doesn’t have to be heart-wrenching, but making an emotive or poignant film will inspire people to find out more about your charity and get involved. A good example comes from Farm Safety Foundation, a small charity dedicated to raising awareness of the dangers of agriculture and changing attitudes to farming safely. It made a film starring a farmer who had a life-changing accident resulting in him losing his left arm while working with farm machinery. Making the farmer the star of the film showcased the farm safety message in a memorable and thought-provoking way.
Storytelling will only work if it’s authentic. A few years ago, Cancer Research UK enjoyed an £8m windfall after the #nomakeupselfie campaign went viral. The twist in the tail with this campaign is that it wasn’t Cancer Research UK’s idea. It noticed the campaign gaining momentum and it gave it a boost, but it wasn’t something it initiated. While it would be near impossible to try and replicate its success, the lesson to be learned is that it was all about authenticity. People bought into it because it was a perfect example of a pure viral campaign.
But, until the next Ice Bucket Challenge or #nomakeupselfie campaign comes along, storytelling remains the best chance for charities to reach and engage with audiences across a range of channels. For smaller charities in particular, storytelling opens up a whole new world of possibilities.
Shaun Ezlati is strategic planner at TVC Group.
This article was originally published in the charity issue of The Drum Network magazine series. You can purchase your copy here.