• Transform magazine
  • August 06, 2020


Charity branding, in conversation

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Last year, the UK’s Workers’ Educational Association (WEA) undertook a comprehensive brand review. With the fruits of this labour soon to be implemented, Brittany Golob, speaks with James Ward, director of marketing, membership and income growth at the WEA, and Fred Burt, founder of Olix Consulting about the challenges brands in the third sector face in an age of government cuts, low growth and Brexit

What is the Workers’ Educational Association and what role does it play in the community?
The WEA is the largest voluntary sector provider of adult education. Not everyone has access to the opportunities provided by education. We believe they should. That’s why we at the WEA help adults learn, no matter where they are, no matter what their circumstances.
Every year, we deliver over 9,500 part-time courses for more than 70,000 students across England and Scotland. We take our courses out into communities, providing high-quality education to adults, whatever age or stage in life they’re at. And we work really hard to reach people that conventional adult education can’t, because they are often the ones that need it most.

Our professional tutors take the time to build trust and empathy with each student we teach, so we understand how learning can improve their lives, not just what their learning needs are inside the classroom.

We’ve been around since 1903 and the need for what we do – providing adult learning that’s within reach – is as pronounced as ever.

What are the current challenges facing the third sector at the moment? Is fundraising still a priority for charity brands?

Despite the overwhelming need for what many third sector organisations do, securing funding has been tough for a long time now. There is more competition for smaller pots of funding. It’s meant that third sector brands have needed to be crystal clear on the problem they exist to solve, and why only they can solve it. Too many charities and non-profits focus on explaining what they do without really communicating what sets them apart and what value they bring. It means they’re all shouting without really connecting or cutting through.

And of course, third sector brands don’t have big comms budgets. There are a few well-funded charities that get to run paid media campaigns, but they’re the exception, and the majority don’t have the resources needed to market with the same force.

What are the challenges around branding when an organisation, like the WEA is government-funded? Does that make it more imperative to prove ROI on creative work or communications programmes?

The WEA receives public funding from the Skills Funding Agency, and in Scotland receives core funding from the Scottish Government. And we’re continuously bidding for a wide range of grants and contracts funding sources, including the National Lottery, other government departments, health organisations, endowment and trust funds and local authorities.

Not only do we have to work hard to prove our value and impact, but we constantly have to ensure our relevance to the public policy agenda. And that’s been a bit of a moving target of late, to say the least! Added to which, government spending cuts mean we’re under even more pressure. And I should add that we are lucky to get EU funding from the European Social Fund as well, which post-Brexit will need to be replaced.

The answer is to diversify our funding so we’re not so dependent on the government. We do ensure those who can afford to pay do so, and we generate fee income as a result, but we need additional funding to ensure we reach those that can’t afford adult education, as they’re often the ones that benefit most from it. But we need other funding as well, especially from the private sector. We have a great partnership in place with Lloyds Banking Group at the moment, which is going really well. Looking forward, we need more of these partnerships.

In a nutshell, any government funded entity has had it tough. It’s not enough to just deliver value, which many third sector brands like the WEA do, it’s essential the full value of what they do is understood. With the government, government minsters and the public policy context all in flux recently, this has been a real challenge, and you can be effectively shut down if one senior decision maker doesn’t get how important what you do really is.

How did the old brand need to evolve and what did you set out as the strategy for the new WEA? How will that help the organisation evolve?

The value story we were presenting was too focused on impact data and we were bypassing the emotion and the stories of the human impact we have always made. This was in part because of a desire to be clear to government funders. We were also telling a category story about adult learning, rather than trying to explain why the WEA’s approach to adult education is so important. It wasn’t wrong, it just wasn’t building our brand. As we’ve looked to diversify, we’ve needed to be much clearer on the answer to the question, ‘Why us?’ New funders, whether public or private sector, need to understand immediately who we are, what we do, the value we deliver and why only we are able to deliver this value.
The brand work we’ve undertaken with Olix – set to roll out this autumn – is designed to restate what has always been there, but which we’d kind of lost sight of. First, that we provide adult learning that’s within reach of people, no matter who they are or where they are, and in particular for those that need it most. That we’re the only adult education provider that works locally in communities across the whole of England and Scotland. And that we reach people who would be left behind without the WEA.

When you hear the stories of the transformative power that the WEA can bring adults from all walks of life, it really moves you. And that’s where we’re moving our conversations with new funders; we’ve got the data and the logic, we’re now adding the stories and the magic.

How should the third sector be changing to keep up with modern developments in brand, communications and fundraising?

Despite all the recent innovations in digital marketing, the basics still are really important. You have to work really hard at getting your proposition right. Why you, why not the alternative? This needs to be authentic, distinct and relevant to the audiences you need to appeal to.

Second, find the emotional dimension that helps bring this proposition to life. Third sector organisations tend to have emotion in spades, but be disciplined and ensure it’s creating a distinct story for your brand. With limited resources for paid and earned media, you have to orchestrate all your touchpoints, and in particular make your owned touchpoints work really hard for you.  And finally, make sure you can deliver on the proposition. If it’s inauthentic you’ll be found out in an instant.

What kinds of opportunities are available at the WEA for volunteers?
They can become students, they can volunteer or they can become members and provide support. They’d be surprised not only at what is on offer at the WEA, but also how learning something new can really help them. Life’s a continuous learning process after all.