Charities must be extremely careful to use the correct language when speaking with supporters, says James Appleton, project manager at Pilotlight.
Comic Relief bosses are celebrating exceeding £1bn in total fundraising over the charity’s 30-year run. Amidst the re-hashing of comedy classics lay Red Nose Day’s other calling card: videos from the UK and abroad demonstrating the need for, and impact of, the money being pledged across the nation.
But did it get the balance right?
My feeling is that it did – treading the line quite neatly between showing the level of need and making donors feel something had been done. Yes, you see the emotive clip of the young boy who got to hospital too late to be saved from malaria, but it is prefaced by a shot of a new medical centre built by the funds from Comic Relief. The viewer is allowed neither to be too overwhelmed by the task at hand nor too smug that the object has been totally achieved. “Here’s what we’ve done – and here’s what we still need to do.”
Yet, how to achieve that balance is one that many charities still struggle with and over the years we have seen a real shift in the language that charities use. For example, when disability charity Scope announced in 2013 that it would be closing many of its residential care homes, the wording of the announcement was optimistic and empowering.
Compare this with a stark advertisement from the 1970s, when Scope was known as the National Spastics Society. A young girl is pictured with crutches to help her walk and three bold words: “Please Help Spastics”. Each word tells a story of a different era. The first begs, the second evokes pity and the third is now a term of offence.
There is a growing consciousness of the effect of language both on external perceptions and on beneficiaries themselves. A key example would be charities that work in the field of domestic violence. For instance, the passive word ‘victim’ has been phased out in favour of the more empowering ‘survivor’. Stacy Smith, director of Greenwich-based domestic abuse charity Her Centre, told me how they were proud to have convinced the local council to use the term ‘abuse’ over ‘violence’ in its campaigns as more women identified with this word.
This sensitivity brings difficulties too. There are organisations running programmes to rehabilitate those who have committed domestic abuse; what do you call such a programme? A men’s programme? But not all abusers are men. A perpetrator programme? But the project is intended to be non-judgmental and conciliatory.
Such a dilemma is clearly not trivial for an organisation, especially in a field that evokes such strong emotion. With this in mind, what does a charity need to consider?
What is the image the language presents of beneficiaries?
The well-thought out terminology now applied by charities shows the importance of using words that will tackle negative stereotypes and raise the status of the person concerned.
What is the effect on potential donors, funders or purchasers?
Charities have to walk the boundary between demonstrating that there are people in need and risking accusations of exploiting pity. Think carefully about which stories you choose and how you use them.
Is the language in line with the ethos and mission of the organisation?
Nowadays even the smallest of charities needs to have a clear idea of the values by which it operates and ensure that the way it speaks is in line with that. Think about your messages and the audience you want to reach – ask yourself if they really get to the heart of what you do and the impact you want to have.
Is it applied consistently across the charity?
Not only should these values be clear but every staff member, trustee and volunteer should buy into them. Get their input into pulling together key messages and make sure these messages are communicated across the organisation.
Although words will never be as crucial as the services that charities provide daily, they go beyond mere communication; they influence the message an organisation sends to all its stakeholders, from funders to the people benefitting on the ground.