Why charity communications don’t work

How often do we see the global email. That global email from someone you’ve never met, or perhaps you have met, but haven’t seen in a while.

“Dear employee,

I’m doing something amazing, putting vast amounts of time and effort into preparing or training, and I’ve got a very nice message, but I’m sending out this email to everyone in the blind hope that you’ll press the little donate button. Here it is as a bitly, just in case.”

And then you’ll see the same note appear on a company intranet or similar medium.

I’d like to invite you Untitled-1dear reader to take a guess how much money this format generates… Go on, go wild.

That’s right, nuffink. Not a penny, because it’s very very easy to hide behind two things:

How easy is it when you’re not called out as an individual, and there’s a little delete button sat right there. The joy of that global list means nobody knows you pressed delete.

As an Internal Communications function, we’re often seen to be to charity what the Grinch is to Christmas. There is an element here of my article on being able to say no. It’s our responsibility to coach and guide people on the best ways to prize the hard-earned out of hands and into charity coffers. That’s why I thought it worthwhile to speak about two recent examples of best practice when asking people to donate.

Interestingly, neither were innovative in the channel they used, but they were innovative in how they used email. Instead of mailing the whole population, they wrote to people they have close working relationships with. People they trust, and who trust them. People whose respect is mutually formed.

It goes back to targeted marketing, and the strides marketing technology is making in putting the right content in front of the right people.

I remember for years taking orders on putting articles onto intranets with futile pleas for money in generic and unmotivating articles. In all that time, I would estimate the uptake was well below half a percent at best, probably closer with 0.1%. Now consider this recent example. 60% hit rate. Six out of ten people who’ve received a personal note not only opened it, clicked through the link, but also dug out a debit card and coughed up. Conservatively, and going from 0.5 – 50% – that’s a 9,900% increase in success. I’ll take that.

The bit that’s really interesting though is, the blitz communications also included the same population of people who actually gave money with the personal communications. Targeted marketing – you don’t need to be a technology giant to get all up in that. We can do it too. And it bloody works.

When should you say no?

As communicators, we’re often presented with a message to communicate and a detailed plan of how it should be disseminated. I’m not sure about you, but it annoys me a bit.

Finding the right channel for messages is our bread and butter, and that’s the bit we’re good at.

So a powerful word we can often use when people tell us to communicate is quite simply “no“.

I’m not suggesting being obtuse or unwilling to help is the way to go – but as partners to the business it’s our job to remind people that we’re there to advise not just on which format to use, but also on the message itself given the context which is usually conflicting and demanding of consideration.

Our job then is to be able to see an entire business, considering all priorities and themes, and to be able to confidently say: “No, we can’t do that, because…”.

This is Internal Communications’ value-add. We help folks to communicate, but we also challenge them not to.

Just Write! – with a brand new tool…

Just as brickies have a favourite trowel, I have a favourite pen. It’s like this one. Many argue it’s unnecessary, but I take great pride in the physical act of writing, even despite my hand-writing being terrible. One of my friends is a great photographer. The amount of kit he has, and the thousands of pounds he’s spent getting to this stage are staggering. But my job only requires one tool, and it’s my pen (my computer comes from the company), so why shouldn’t I have a nice one.

As communicators, we spend an awfully long time writing. One of the best tips I ever heard was the advice to forget formatting. Get the words on the page. Just Write! My Geography teacher taught me that when I was 14, and while it took a few years for me to apply it, I use that advice even now.

I heard a very funny simile recently; lorry drivers don’t get lorry driver’s block, so what gives writers the right to claim writer’s block?

I’ve tried all kinds of word processors, writing tools, blog software, and cloud-writers. None of them ever hit the money, too faffy, or too complicated. Most trying to be all things to all men and women. I stumbled across writing Nirvana however, and have been using it exclusively since. I’m writing with it right now, although you’ll be reading it’s copy and pasted twin on my website. It’s the most wonderful software I’ve ever bought, and for the cost of a takeaway, it’s worth every penny. Have a shufty here. You definitely won’t regret it.

CEOs and employees. BFFs?

They might well be soon enough. A new wave of tools, speaking about one in particular – Workplace, rank executive announcements into the same bucket as customer service reps and project managers alike. There’s no discernment into importance of the author, just how popular the post is perceived. So messages that ask no question, or invite no response get pushed down feeds into low readership oblivion instead of shining at the top.

As communicators, it presents us with both challenges and opportunities. And the gravity of either depends a lot on the willingness to change from the management team. Gone are the days of messages ending in ‘Carry on workforce, your leader has spoken’. We now need to nurture conversation and collaboration – “Give us your thoughts” or “How would you do it?” being the most elementary step forwards.

This marks a wider cultural change too. People are far less accepting of hierarchy, and the communications we have at our disposal these days flatten them completely. Angry at your energy provider? Well call them out on Twitter, a forum where you can have a one on one conversation with a multi-billion pound company in a very public space.

You can see this change represented in politics too, with the isolationistic mass revolt against mainstream governance. So teaching our leaders how to speak to their employees as peers is increasingly a required competency. For leaders, nowadays and in the near future, being seen to be able to speak to colleagues business-wide on first name terms is just as important as being able to chair the AGM with the shareholder. Welcome to the new wave of affable business.

What about the future of communications?

Name me a single job that doesn’t list ‘Good communication skills’ as a pre-requisite for employment. I bet you can’t think of a single one. Nor can I for that matter; it wasn’t a trick question. And yet, nothing is ever done to measure how good a communicator someone is once they’re in situ. Imagine then a world where employees and staff are the internal communicators of a company – a world where they’re entrusted to disseminate the important information we as communications professionals hold onto so tightly. It’s not so far from being the case already, albeit in a more informal context (think water cooler, canteen, or stairwell).

If anything, internal or corporate communications is lagging behind. Progressive companies handed over their marketing to their customers, and in some cases, they’ve done it whole-sale. It isn’t particularly new either, Dropbox did it, Uber, and Monzo too. These companies were so confident in their product, they spent very little on customer acquisition, letting their customers introduce their friends and families instead. Monzo in particular has a very sound model of putting you on a waiting list, and offering the chance to be bumped up the queue if your friends sign up too.

Take internal communications then. Instead of crafting perfectly formal emails from executives, the focus would be instead to get the strategy in such sound shape, that employees would do the talking for the company. The second part of this strategy therefore is making sure people have the water cooler. Having an intuitive, and well received platform for employee discussions would enable these conversations to take place. The conversations that take place on here can’t be curated, or polished. The bad stands shoulder to shoulder with the good. Feedback and criticism helps to form the next iteration of the strategy, not seen as dissent or distraction.

And then to measurement. Instead of measuring arbitrary and self-serving statistics like page views or overly general satisfaction surveys, you’d measure the one thing that’s more likely to mean an employee wants to work for a company. Their boss. Measuring people managers on their ability to communicate a compelling and believable vision, helping to open a conversation with their team, and importantly, using their feedback to help shape the next iteration of the strategy.

Products nowadays are agile and iterative. Why then should a company strategy be any different?

The poster police

This was my first real go at internal communications. Making sure posters in the business reflected the brand accurately. Woe betide anyone that didn’t create a perfect interpretation of the brand guidelines. It turns out, there’s a bit more to internal communications than just posters.

A properly functioning comms team moves in a cycle like this.


To properly engage the people in a business there are a few things that need to be understood. The first are the goals of the business. People are employed by a business to deliver the goals it signs up to. There is no interpretation here. Every business has a commercial agenda, be that delivering sales targets, or helping a set number of people. Companies, charities, non-profits, multinational conglomerates. Even a social enterprise like a group of friends going on holiday has a pre-agreed agenda they must deliver, albeit in a more informal sense.

The next level of understanding needs to come from the people who will deliver the objectives. The employees. Finding out what they get up for, what their collective understanding of any existing strategy is crucial in forming the next one, even if that remains broadly unchanged.

Build a strategy

Once you know fully who the strategy is for and what has to be achieved you can make a start on building one. This isn’t the logo stage, this is the core message, business wide measurable targets, the organisation of the people to deliver them and a timeline. It also includes a vision of what success looks like. Don’t be fooled into thinking that this stage is a complete re-write. Sure enough, it could be. But it can also be tweaking, refining and recoloring. Defining a strategy doesn’t have to be sweeping reform, it could be slight amends that help stay aligned to shifting company goals.

Tell a story

The part of communications that most people associate with us. The story. Words, pictures, videos, stages, print-outs and workshops The tangible part of our work that looks the most glamorous but has limited impact. Think of a building, all the foundations have been built, the structure is already there, huge steel girders hang across vast spaces supported by concrete pillars. The story is the rendered wall and polished floor. It’s the bit that helps people interact with and understand a building. In a strategy it’s no different. It’s the heat-conductor between strategy data and the people getting on with it.

Create and adapt tools

Once people understand the strategy through good storytelling, they need tools to work towards the problem. This is where technology steps in. Years before this would have been pen, branded paper and meeting rooms, but we’ve got a whole host of collaboration tools and systems we can offer people. Existing tools need to be adapted to make sure they’re fit for purpose. In practical terms think of performance management documents and rewards and recognition. Not just the tools to do your job need to be re-thought, but the tools to help people do their job – the HR stuff.

Show and teach

With tools in hand they need to know how to use them. This is where people managers step in. With this important group of people on board the tools you’ve built become invaluable in helping employees work together to deliver objectives. Without this crucial part of the wheel, the best tools in the world can’t build a single thing.

Ask and listen

Measurement. Measuring is so important,but do it frequently or don’t bother. Imagine having a large portfolio of stocks and shares, but only finding out once a year how much they were worth. You’d find a new broker pretty sharpish, so why then do we put up with a single annual survey to find out how employees see an organisation. Little and often is the way to learn, that applies to four-year-olds, learning an instrument, or refining a company strategy. Little and often is the best way to take a regular temperature of a workforce. It always allows you to fail fast – if something’s not working work quickly to solve it, not a year until it’s forgotten.

Commercialising internal communications

It’s easy to target ‘happy’ indices. It’s what some internal communications teams were set up for – their whole point. “Find a way of improving employee engagement” is a common challenge set to us at all levels, from the tactical campaign support, all the way up to a company re-brand and re-strategy.

But the question in my head rings… why? Why do business leaders want to make sure their employees are happy? The answer doesn’t require a genius. A happy employee is more likely to be more productive. We all know about the plethora of quotes from Branson wheeled out at any opportunity to sound progressive.

But surely as communicators we can go further than just making sure everyone’s having a nice time?

How do we make our content commercial? The answer lies in building brand, product and service advocation. Like my post on the future of communications, as long as the brand, product or service is strong enough, the advocacy will follow. Our job as internal communicators then isn’t to simply narrate the comings and goings of business in passive vernacular, but to sell the business’ wares to employees too. I’m a firm believer that communications teams have no place plugging the product, brand or service, even though you still see it in some instances, overly-zealous use of the adjectives: exciting, excellent, great, et al. Our place instead is to be the medium of discussion and collaboration.

As soon as you introduce a message with an underlying motive, the credibility vanishes. But that’s where people come in. Using experts in the subject will appear transparent to other people in the business. A project manager selling their project is believable and authentic. That’s where a communications team can have a voice – when someone else is speaking.