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We need to tell the truth, but not the whole truth

In the wake of the revelations about Lance Armstrong and the impact on Livestrong, Craig Dearden-Phillips writes that charities should stop telling porkies,.

In my experience, the opposite is true; charities are usually punctiliously, scrupulously honest sometimes to a ridiculous and self-sabotaging degree. They tend to want to tell everybody everything about what they do, to ensure that communications are faithfully representative of what the organisation does and to educate the donor about the totality of their work – even the boring bits (though I doubt anyone has ever been educated into supporting any cause).

Brands in the commercial sector commonly focus on flagship hero products to achieve a halo effect for the brand – the 501 jeans or the celebrity-inspired range, rather than the everyday staples.

Samaritans doesn’t ask for money to pay the rent or to cover the cost of the phonelines, although very likely that is exactly what it needs the money for. It asks for money to help people in need with no one and nowhere else to turn.

It’s benefits, not features that motivate people – the lives saved through access to clean water, not the equipment needed to drill the boreholes. That would be, well, boring. As  Charles Revson, founder of Revlon, famously said: “In the factory we make cosmetics; in the drugstore we sell hope.” (He also said “I built this business by being a bastard”, but there we are).

The best advertising is a truth well told. In the third sector we have something commercial brands would kill for: great true stories. If we can put a window on the work and connect donors with beneficiaries so that they can see the real, lasting, human impact of their support, we will deepen the engagement necessary to generate the lifetime value we all seek; the income that will help deliver on the mission and make the vision we want to achieve a reality.

You don’t need to know what’s under the bonnet to want to drive a particular brand of car, although Honda showed that sometimes the nuts and bolts can make utterly compelling viewing. We need to tell the truth, just not the whole truth.

Caroline Gibbs is head of planning at The Good Agency

  • Peter Colllins

    You’ve hit on the crux of the matter towards the end of the piece. I don’t think most people believe the ‘reforms’ are really about making the health service better – they’re about bringing private enterprise into health provision by the back door. It’s going to take a lot to convince me and many others that the social enterprise route is anything more than a smokescreen.

  • Ivor Sutton

    I partially agree.

    Though, being fully open and transparent about your organisation, or you as an individual running an organisation, surely cannot be a bad thing – especially if its backed-up with a strong business model. Can it?

    I know there has been so much commentary on whether the third sector is being taking advantage of by government when it comes to awarding Work Programme contracts… etc. However, I have always said that it is fundamental to the ‘differences’ that Charity status gives to the third sector sectors, that they backup the empathetic stance, the social enterprise models and the aim to sustain themselves financially – all with the structural unpinning of ‘business’ in mind… and in attitude.

    Thus, I feel that maybe this failure to act like a business, or to feel or believe third sector organisations are ‘businesses’, is what seemingly will always make it feel vulnerable.

    • Patricia Leighton

      This is a good retort. I do feel very strongly that in this world of scandals, corruption etc that charities have to behave with complete integrity. It is unfortunate that scum like Lance Armstrong cost his charities money but all that means if you want support and big names you need to check them out, Big business does far too little on due diligence. It was clear to many of us(And not just L’Eqipe, that Armstrong was a cheat and should have been given a clear berth. Please lets not go down the route that charities are just mini businesses and ape the failures of so many of those big businesses. We have to be properly run but need always to keep a weather eye on behaving with integrity-and sometimes that might mean missing out on what seems a great source of money.