• Transform magazine
  • August 18, 2022


Opinion: Martin Rowlatt asks “How can charities outsmart to avoid outspending?”


As the squeeze on third sector income continues, charities are increasingly competing against one another for the hearts, minds and pockets of the public. With limited budgets, what is needed to succeed? Martin Rowlatt, who recently worked on the brand strategy for the British Heart Foundation, says you can make an impact without costing the earth.

Here are his fundamental five rules for charities looking to outsmart when they can’t outspend. First, craft your story. Of course, most charities have a very specific cause, but a brand is a story and great brands are about compelling, crafted storytelling.

Spend some time honing the fundamentals of your story and don’t be afraid to challenge the status quo. Does it have to tug at heartstrings? At the centre of the story must be a powerfully and clearly-defined idea of the ambition you have and difference you will make. Be loud and proud in your call to action. Equally, be clear about who your enemy is – it may be the cause (e.g. cancer) but it could be something else (apathy, ignorance).

In a crowded space full of worthwhile causes all competing for hearts, minds and pockets being driven by a compelling cause-centred story will make you stand out.

At the centre of the story must be a powerfully and clearly-defined idea of the ambition you have and difference you will make. Be loud and proud in your call to action.

Second, get some personality. Personality matters more than ever. People engage and respond better to brands that they can relate to, so think about the essence of your persona.

The key however is to be true to who you are and what you stand for, not necessarily what you believe people expect you to be. Define your persona based around your story and beliefs and your personality will emerge. You will feel more authentic, credible and engaging.

What struck us with the British Heart Foundation was its relentless determination to succeed. This strong, positive personality and attitude informs everything else it strives for and believes in. The call to action, ‘Fight for Every Heartbeat,’ reflects this.

Also, be more Velcro. Velcro uses a series of hooks and loops to attach together randomly. This is David Hieatt’s metaphor for how good ideas are formed too: taking seemingly unrelated elements and strands and fusing them to hold something together.

Think randomly or laterally and then invest in brave ideas – in a competitive, fast-moving environment action often trumps analysis. Just look at the Ice Bucket Challenge, which one in every six Britons took part in, according to the Charities Aid Foundation – who would have thought that dumping water over your friends’ heads could raise over $100m worldwide?

Next, embrace the three C’s. In an increasingly connected and social world, our three C’s stand for context, conversation and community. We are living in an age of mass connectedness – according to the Guardian, 71% of UK phone owners now have a smartphone – which is changing the way we behave, as well as donate to charity.

How many times have you given to charity because a friend posted a link on Facebook? Or seen an appeal on TV and whipped your phone out to donate by text? Many believe that this is the future of charitable giving. Despite this undeniable trend, 83% of charities do not have a mobile strategy, according to a Give for Life survey out earlier this year.

Charities looking to refresh their brand appeal and tap into the mobile masses must tap into social contexts, conversations and communities and then start their own. Get involved in issues people are talking about, have the difficult conversations and maybe even build or facilitate online communities.

Last, raise a smile. Finally, don’t forget to have some fun. A touch of wit goes a long way, especially in the face of serious issues. With the British Heart Foundation, we wanted to get across the resilient spirit of its work, through bold, witty but ultimately brave imagery and campaigns. Bear in mind that a bit of well-placed humour can be a powerful tool to connect people to your cause.

Martin Rowlatt is a strategy director and branding specialist at The Partners