Is charity a dirty word?

The Prostate Cancer Charity launched its new brand last week, deliberately dropping the word ‘charity’ from the name because of concern that it conjures up the image of well meaning amateurs rather than effective professionals. There are two key issues here: one is the explicit use of the word ‘charity’ as an identifier; the other is the potentially increasing cynicism that the charity sector is engendering in the general public.

On the first, it would seem to make sense to drop the word from the name if an organisation’s charitable status is implicit in every other aspect of its brand. Tesco and Sainsburys don’t suffix their names with ‘supermarket’ because it is redundant, and that is the case here. It is perhaps no coincidence that the new name echoes very prominent charities like Age UK and Cancer Research UK in wanting to emphasise its reach and relevance, so the word ‘charity’ is an obvious casualty as a literal signifier.

Prostate Cancer UK

The second issue – the one they’ve stated publicly as part of their reasoning for the change –  is more troubling for the sector as a whole.

There continues to be an outmoded but prevalent public belief that ‘good charities’ spend every last penny on the cause they work for, with a body of volunteers humbly toiling for free and miraculously avoiding all costs associated with running an organisation – fuelled by good will and little else. This contrasts sharply with ‘bad charities’, those with chief executives earning six figure salaries, and others with teams of feral street fundraisers harassing the ordinary Joe in the street. This has come about partly as a result of charities themselves pandering to the old fashioned stereotype in their own communications, and partly because the term itself has been stretched to straining point.

As a catch-all term, charity now represents a very broad church indeed, from the tiny, volunteer-run community group to national and international agencies like the British Red Cross and Oxfam. The nature, approach and diversity of the work they do has also developed dramatically, perhaps most radically and challengingly in the delivery of public sector work. As a result, the meaning of the word has evolved dramatically since the concept of charity was first codified, so it is perhaps not surprising that it is disappearing from charity brands.

Only three of the top 100 UK charities currently use the word as part of their name according to Prostate Cancer UK’s research. As they launched the rebrand, Prostate Cancer UK talked about its desire to highlight the breadth of the charity as an organisation comprising a variety of professional nurses, researchers, marketers and managers, as well as volunteers, and obviously feel the work is an impediment to it doing so.

However, there is a strong counter argument for keeping the word charity as part of the front line descriptions of charitable organisations. Social enterprises, public bodies and the private sector are starting to muscle in on the sector’s territory, wearing its clothes when describing their social purpose and impact. Again, this is partly as a result of charities delving into their traditional areas of work and smudging the lines of distinction for public audiences.

The natural end point might be for charity simply to become a technical term, a badge for organisations that have formalised themselves as charities, rather than a term of resonance for the general public. At the moment, the word for many conjures up the old fashioned image already outlined, or provokes a cynical response or both.

The sector may soon be faced with a fork in the road: letting the term die out as a collective badge of honour for the sector and fighting it out with all the other organisations working to deliver positive change; or trying to imbue it with a new sense of identity, a term that reflects who and what charities are now and will be in the future, a distinctive sector worthy of special attention and special support. Perhaps the sector won’t know what it’s lost until it is gone.

Peter Gilheany is a director at communications agency Forster