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Do you have the courage to let your supporters own their story?

  • I recently went to SOFII's annual ‘I Wish I Thought of That’ (IWITOT) event, where 17 fundraisers present an inspiring fundraising campaign or idea that they wish they'd come up with. I’ve always thought this is a great concept, as it’s nice to listen to people wax lyrical about somebody else’s work, rather than promoting themselves. And no matter how big or small your charity is, there are always a few ideas to take away with you as inspiration!

    There’s often a recurring theme at IWITOT that links together the presentations, and this time was no exception. Many of the fundraising ideas featured a charity that had taken a backseat and allowed their supporters and beneficiaries to tell a story in their own voice.

    Doing this can be really powerful, especially in the social media age where people engage with and share content instantly. Storytelling, authenticity and spontaneity are crucial, and people are increasingly suspicious of ‘formal’ advertising and contrived campaigns.

    This is something that charities often miss when they set their sights on creating the next Ice Bucket Challenge or No Makeup Selfie. These campaigns are almost impossible to replicate, because their organic beginning – somebody sharing a personal, engaging update with no grand plan – is what made them successful. 

    The best campaigns aren’t dreamed up in a boardroom or on flipchart paper. It’s the organic messages, the simple supporter stories that aren’t put through a brand filter, that really capture people's imagination. So when charities are too eager to raise awareness about their organisation and ‘get their message out there’, all too often they manage to achieve the complete opposite.

    I’d like to share a couple of really personal, spontaneous campaigns that were showcased at IWITOT: 

    1. Emmy and Jake’s tandem fundraising challenge

    When Emmy Collett received the heartbreaking news that she had thyroid cancer, she embarked on a 2,000km tandem cycling challenge from London to Copenhagen with her childhood sweetheart Jake to raise money for The Royal Marsden Cancer Charity.

    Emmy’s inspirational efforts showed that it’s possible to remain active and upbeat despite having cancer. Her updates were also brutally honest, showing people the true side of her illness, treatment and painful symptoms.

    As Emmy and Jake’s poignant tale quickly gained publicity, the Royal Marsden made a conscious decision. They committed to remaining in the background, letting the young couple keep telling their story their way, without controlling what they said to the media. It was a brilliant decision – while donors felt compelled to give to two amazing individuals, it was the charity that really gained. 

    2. Paul Trueman’s ‘The Archers’ campaign

    After BBC Radio’s long-standing programme ‘The Archers’ featured a hard-hitting domestic abuse storyline, Paul Trueman was inspired to use it as an opportunity to raise money for a good cause:

    ‘Because Kirsty can't do this on her own, people. If over the last year or two you've sworn at the radio, tweeted in outrage, taken the name 'Robert' in vain, or posted your disgust at the worsening situation in Blossom Hill Cottage, then now's your chance to do something constructive about it.

    A fiver could get Helen (and Henry) a taxi round to the safety of her mum's farm (she's not 'allowed' to drive). A tenner could get her that maternity top (he made her send back). Just a crisp twenty could order a seasonal starter at Grey Gables and perhaps a quiet, conciliatory word with its head chef.   

    Time to do something constructive and think of all the women who are genuinely stuck in relationships like this - and much, much worse. So, joking apart, all the money from the Rescue Fund will go to the brilliant Refuge, helping all those women who don't have a mate like Kirsty and their own organic cheese shop waiting for them at the end of it.’

    This highly unusual fundraising campaign used a fictional storyline and ‘ask’ to highlight the plight of real women. Refuge, the beneficiary charity, could have jumped on this and taken the opportunity to liken it to their own case studies, sell their work and 'polish up' the message. Instead, like the Royal Marsden, they trusted the creator of the story to be its best ambassador. After raising over £170,000, it seems like a pretty good decision.

    Now over to you…

    In today's world of spontaneous online interactions, I think that too many charities underestimate how well others can tell their story for them. So here’s the question – is your charity is brave enough to take a step back and let your supporters tell their own story too?

    This requires courage, faith in the people who represent you, and a willingness to relinquish control. For small charities, the chance to gain publicity and raise awareness is all too rare. So when it comes, you might understandably feel the need to refine and maximise your message as much as possible.

    Trouble is, when you reframe things using words that matter to you, and put your charity front and centre, you usually lose that vital authenticity and those all-important shares as a result.

    However, if you can resist the temptation to do this, maybe someday people will be talking about your high-profile and inspiring campaign and wondering how they could replicate it.

    This blog is based on a blog that first appeared on on 20 December 2016

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