Charity reputation – it’s not kids’ play

10 March 2016, News

You can’t muck around when it comes to your reputation, particularly when you’re relying on the goodwill and generosity of volunteers, fundraisers and donors as the charity sector does.  Those that work for, support and rely upon charities, put their absolute trust in them – that’s why maintaining reputation is critical.

Charities have been hitting the headlines for all the wrong reasons in recent months as a result of poor fundraising practices and governance.  High profile cases such as the demise of Kid’s Company due to management and finance issues; and Age UK, which was forced to stop a controversial energy tariff with E.on, have put the question of reputational resilience in the charity sector firmly in the spotlight.

So much so that the industry met recently to discuss the issue and come up with a plan of action at an event hosted by Acevo, the UK’s largest network for charity and social enterprise leaders, and the National Council for Voluntary Organisations. It discussed how the sector could reassure the public, its supporters and donors that they are taking criticisms seriously and are thinking about what else they can do to demonstrate accountability and transparency.

In addition, a new report published by the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee in January called for charity trustees to effectively take ownership of good governance, following its inquiry into fundraising in the charitable sector. The report highlights an opportunity for public relations knowledge, advice and support to take a leading, strategic, and defining role across the sector.

So how can charities put resilience into their reputation?

  1. As with any organisation’s crisis management strategy, assess your reputational risks at the outset so you are fully prepared for any situations that could impact on reputation. Whilst some risks will be sector-wide others will be particular to specific charities due to the nature of their cause. In effect, the charity should be carrying out regular Risk and Reputation Audits. The charity should be regularly asking itself the hardest questions. What if this aspect happened? What if that aspect received public criticism? What is our worst case scenario? How resilient are our governance structures? Our whistle-blowing channels?
  2. Develop a crisis management team and plan if you haven’t done so already. The team should include: the CEO, Financial Director, Trustees, Director of Fundraising, HR, other operational directors, and head of communications as well as the external PR and legal representatives. The plan should set out the potential reputational risks and how to deal with each one, how to manage a crisis when one occurs, key responsibilities and reporting lines.
  3. Be proactive and decisive. Don’t let a crisis engulf your organisation. It can take time for simple decisions to be processed, approved by line management and brought to the attention of directors. That’s why a crisis management plan is crucial, it puts you on the front foot. Once the crisis is actually seen for what it is, one that is gaining public traction in the modern media environment, with a lethal momentum to roll beyond effective control without swift, decisive and appropriate remedial action, you should do just that. Take swift, decisive and appropriate action. And that means media engagement…… within minutes. To be seen and to be heard to do so –‐ very clearly and very loudly –‐ will not only buy you time, it might even win you plaudits. How many organisations are condemned for showing leadership and purpose during the firestorm? Demonstrate that you are in control of the situation and that you already have things in place to put things right.
  4. Be transparent and openThis is absolutely critical as so much trust is placed in. Authenticity and honesty is key and tone of voice needs to reflect this to convey you care. Your stakeholders want to see that you have a human face and actually give a damn. Don’t be afraid to acknowledge that there has been an issue and that you are now on top of things. Be true to your audience, be true to yourself and be true to your mission. Not only will your donors demand it but your staff will do so as well as they will expect the highest levels of ethicality.
  5. Build advocacy. From those you support and those that provide support; to charitable bodies and politicians, it’s key to build a groundswell of allies who can talk up your charity during the period of the crisis and how you’ve effectively dealt with the situation, as well as post crisis when you’re looking to rebuild trust and confidence.
  6. Get your messages in order and keep to the script. Develop four or five key messages that you can easily remember and keep repeating them to all stakeholders and via media channels.
  7. Be ready for wide ranging questions. A reputational issue will always generate a large number of questions from different stakeholders and the media. Think of every possible question, leaving no stone unturned, so your spokespeople can respond consistently and positively, as well as deal with the most awkward, ill-informed or downright hostile questions that you fear the most.
  8. Don’t just think about the media reaction. It’s vital that a communications programme thinks about all your audiences and is carefully coordinated so that no stakeholder is left disappointed or, even worse, aggrieved in the way they have been communicated to. Always inform your staff first as there’s nothing worse than them finding out about the issue from another source.
  9. Keep an eye on the digital space. Firstly, digital media should form a cornerstone of your communications strategy – from your own website to appropriate social media channels. Today’s modern media means news is always on and has never been more powerful, pervasive and persuasive than before. Ignore social media at your peril in times of difficulty as it will give an impression that you do not want to engage around the situation that has arisen. Also monitor social media for conversations so that you can pick up on how people feel towards the charity during the crisis period. This helps inform communications going forward.
  10. Rebuild trust and confidence. Depending on the nature of the situation that you’ve had to face up to demonstrate that you have taken action and moved on for the better, whether that’s around governance or fundraising practices as the case may be. Also, if issues are more deep rooted and relate to the behaviours of your team, then consider taking a hard look at the culture and values of the business. This might require a carefully positioned transformation programme which is clearly articulated as to why it is needed, what the end goal looks like and the role that everyone within the organisation has to play in the journey that lies ahead.

Last month YouGov published a poll into the mood of the public towards charities. It revealed that there is a decline in the perception that charities are trustworthy and that they operate to high standards. Furthermore, of those that feel the media has been fair in its reporting of charities, a significant proportion believe that large charities have not taken the accusations seriously. There appears that the charity sector has a big job on its hands to regain its trusted status.


By Chris Lawrance, Managing Director at JBP.


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