Why language is vital to sustained philanthropy

The CEO of The Childhood Trust explores the importance of language to encouraging long commitments from donors

Like many commercial entities, charities are subject to seasonal and cultural impacts on income. While it’s very rare for any organisation to have a completely consistent velocity of revenue, those that manage to level out the peaks and troughs are in a stronger position to grow and develop as a business. For charities, the focus that comes with this development is so important to achieving short and long term goals. The real questions is, in a sector that is so affected by seasonality and situations, how do we achieve this?

I believe language has a big part to play in supporting a regular, consistent income from supporters. From communication with donors and trustees to engagement with beneficiaries and staff, the objectives of the charity have to be clear and achievable. While it’s tempting to think and talk big, you can actually do more harm than good to your income if you’re setting the bar too high and not delivering.

The most successful charities are often the ones that tell their supporters exactly what their donation will do. People understand what they’ve done to help, can see the results and it makes them feel great. It keeps donors engaged and makes them want to donate again. Creating sustained philanthropy goes beyond this, however, and needs to be completely ingrained in the overall objectives of the charity. It’s more difficult to motivate future support if you tell people their donation will do X and your primary goal is to do something different. The language to your stakeholders has to reflect what you can feasibly achieve with the tools and circumstances at the time.

This language and messaging also has to be consistent across all channels. Stores, volunteers, websites, marketing and social media all need to say the same thing, even if that has an impact on your short-term donor acquisition. It’s generally better to have less people donating regularly than a higher number of one-off donations that have been sold on a goal that you cannot achieve.

Recently, we held a meeting with our trustees and board to discuss and develop our own theory of change. Much of the conversation was about the barriers, opportunities and factors that could help or hinder us in the change we want to make. We work with local charities in London that provide services for impoverished children and so our primary goal could have been “to eliminate child poverty in London.” Instead, we really explored what we, and our partner charities, could achieve and decided that to “alleviate the impact of child poverty in London” was more suitable. It’s not that we wanted to be defeatist, it’s just that we would rather our supporters felt that their donations really helped towards our goal.

We want all charities, big and small, to overcome the seasonal and cultural obstacles that face them, and believe that analysing and refining the language and communications to their stakeholders is a great first step to achieve this.