Social Tech and Charity: Great for the bank balance but what about the brand?

27 08 2012

I’ve noticed in recent months that more and more space on my Facebook homepage now seems to be dedicated to friends talking about the latest run or bike ride or walk they are doing for charity and asking me to give what I can to the cause. This is invariably followed by the mention of some sort of target that they are trying to meet, one assumes in order to get me to loosen my purse-strings further.

It occurred to me the other day, that whilst all this fundraising that is happening through social technology at the moment must be great for the charities bank balances, it might not actually be so great for their brands. Sure it’s fantastic for Facebook as I have just alluded to, as it puts them at the forefront of people’s minds when it comes to charitable brands.

Sure it has been fantastic for Vodafone; who were the first network to have the bright idea to allow people to set up their own charity text lines with their Just Text Giving service. This basically allows you to set yourself up as a sub-brand of any charity you want, raising money for them whilst being – at least as far as the giver is concerned – completely disconnected from the charity at the point of donation.

It’s a genius move by both Facebook and Vodafone; as millions have now been raised for charity via both mediums. And it is great for us and our fondness for individualism. Seriously, what better way to assert it than through our own ego rubbing pedestals from which we may shout about our charitable work? So it is great for us and great for companies involved in social tech, but is it a genius move by the charities?

Now I’m not really the best person to talk about charity, mainly because I don’t believe it solves anything as it weakens both the giver and the receiver by making them dependant on one another when the best way to change someone’s circumstances is to empower them to change their situation for themselves.

But I’m not going to talk about my problems with charity and it’s failures here, that is for another time.

I’m going to talk about the brands. Whilst I’ll admit that I’m not the best person to talk about charity, I do – through my job – have a decent understanding of brands. And in the long-term I see the dilution of the identities of the movements that sit behind Just Text Giving and other charitable fund-raising platforms. At the end of the day, the brand is what we buy into, not the product, but the brand. And more often than not these days, I find myself giving money to a mate and not to the charity.

We all have brands we are tied to, companies we are unquestionably loyal to and whom we will forgive most indiscretions. For me it’s Apple and Manchester United. I’m pretty boring and simple in that way, I’ve never been much of a fan of stuff and things but I’ll admit that these two can both bring out a materialistic/irrational side of me that I’d like to pretend no longer exists.

The problem charities face by opening themselves up to social tech is the same problem we all face each time we either receive or hand out the type of abuse that is only reserved for the Internet’s various comment feeds. You see, the Internet (and particularly social tech), pulls off the hugely impressive feat of BOTH connecting us and disconnecting us like never before, and this is where – so far at least – charity seems to have misunderstood the full power of its latest weapon. It can work both ways.

That is where the fear should lie for any charity involved with Facebook or Vodafone or any other platform where the public becomes the spokesperson. Yes their bank balance is more connected to more of us than ever before, but the brands are becoming more and more disconnected from the general public each time one of us gives a friend money on their behalf. They ought to do something about it.

Look at Apple. Apple are able to sell their products through intermediaries like PC World because apple have products. As awesome (if not ridiculous) as their shops are, it doesn’t matter if I buy their latest gadget in an Apple Store or not because I always have the product at the end connecting me to their intricate web of communications and serving as the proof of why I felt something for this brand in the first place.

With charities it doesn’t quite work in the same way, when I give money to a charity, the connection must exist at the point of sale if that charity wishes to create any sustained loyalty from its contributors. The problem is that outside of their communications and the conversation I have with the representative on the phone or on the street, there is very little to keep me tied to that organisation. No products, no services, just the cause.

Therefore if the message is everything how can you ensure that your message is not diluted by all these people going out and raising money for you in their own names? What does that mean for the long-term future of your business? And make no mistake, charity is big business.

I’d say right now as things stand even big movements like the WWF should be worried. At least enough to recognise that the balance is not yet quite right. It doesn’t mean scrapping social tech as a money-raising tool, it certainly can’t be denied it has its benefits. But it does mean it is time for a rethink around how to strike a balance between boosting the contributions you receive and keeping the brand on point and the message as clear as it ever was.

The use of Social Media to boost any cause can be of huge benefit to the organisation if done well. But, if you get it wrong, – and many, many organisations are getting it wrong – it could serve to destroy everything that made you great in the first place. Whether you are an Apple or an Amnesty International, you’d better take social tech seriously, or it might just bite you in the bottom…




3 responses

3 09 2012

First, I strongly disagree with your reasoning behind not being a fan of charities. Not only do most fill a critical societal need – there are many that actually empower people to change their own lives in just the way you describe. Workforce development organizations train people to succeed in the workforce, small business seed funding supports new businesses, nonprofit education organizations give young students the skills and confidence they need to change their circumstances, organizations support kids who wouldn’t otherwise have the chance to go to college, and then who knows what they are capable of? I don’t believe the nonprofit sector is perfect, but to imply that we’re creating only creating a system of dependency demonstrates a basic lack of understanding of the sector.

Second, I agree with you to a certain extent on the challenges of engaging runners/cyclists etc. to fundraise for groups. I regularly give to organizations I don’t care about because a friend asks. However, if an organization is smart, they can send strong messages to their donors to engage them after the initial gift. The brand attachment might work for only a small % of donors, but you can engage some of them. And if an organization has strong communications and truly serves a community need, there is a product that a donor can attach to. Some people take their giving very seriously – as seriously as their latest Apple gadgets.

3 09 2012
Tanya Vyas

Great post, James. I’d like to argue that with many more people raising money on behalf of the charity, instead of losing the connection with the charity, I think that there are more people with a stronger connection with charities than ever, which is why your facebook feed is full of requests from friends for donations.

I also think that the connection with the person donating and the cause is made stronger by the person doing the charitable deed. I guess I’m trying to say that the charity is being embodied by the person running the race, jumping from the plane or riding the bike… whatever it may be, the connection from the charity to the person donating is special.

I also think that the message is not changed because the person doing the deed will most likely have a special reason or an experience, which the donor can relate to and would therefore more likely donate. I wouldn’t donate to Macmillan if they asked me for money on my face, but I would donate if my friend was hosting a tea in memory of her mother with cancer.

I do agree with your point that far too many people that I know are doing charitable deeds that I don’t know who to sponsor, but I do know that I’ll sponsor those with a cause close to my heart…

13 09 2012

Just a quick one:

I think the key here is that charities need the money and they’re getting it (potentially) more than ever BECAUSE OF social tech.

However, to make us all better people with a greater understanding of the world, charities and to encourage more people to give, I agree that improving the charity ‘branding’ and message will do just that. Encouraging people to think about what they’re giving their money to and perhaps to teach them something along the way.

I think the reason why social tech works so well at raising funds for charity is down to people needing an obvious point to relate to. A charity contacting you whether in the street, on the phone or by email is impersonal and often unwanted as the contact was not instigated by a real life person. Also the charity message may be clear but there is often no clear way of seeing what is done with the givers money specifically.

In a society where we like to see immediate change and gratification, I believe giving this money through a friend fulfils this need with an immediate personable thank you, an obvious onerous task to be undertaken (the charitable act) and a positive boost perhaps to your friendship level and social status with the charity representative (the friend).

Just an idea….!?!

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