Charities will adapt or die

By Shimon Cohen, September 5, 2011

At the Charity Commission's last count there were 2,351 Jewish charities in the UK. Granted, almost half raised less than £10,000 a year. But it is often the smaller charities which do the most remarkable work.

Charitable giving is a huge part of our culture. It's a characteristic that we are rightly proud of. But bad news for charities is coming thick and fast. Earlier this month, a report revealed that charities face net funding reductions from local authorities of over £110 million this year. Days later, we heard that, according to the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, charities will receive £911 million less per year by 2015-16.

Taken in the context of the government's austerity measures, these news stories should set our communal alarm bells ringing. Even Cancer Research has indicated that its work could suffer greatly from decreased donations. With its unrivalled success and influence, if even it is starting to worry, how much more concerned should Jewish charities be, which fundraise almost exclusively from within the community?

The answer for some of the larger charities has traditionally been simple. They would pick up the phone to their large donors, safe in the knowledge that if it had been a difficult year, they could fall back on the generosity of a few individuals.

Precarious as that approach is, it is worse still for the smaller charities which often rely exclusively on one or more large donors.

Excellent charities who fail to ask will lose out

This status quo is disintegrating. Charities, particularly those with unsung, specialist causes, face a stark choice: adapt or fail.

Adapting in an environment of such uncertainty requires knowing your stakeholders and how to communicate with them.

For example, a trend is developing towards attracting large numbers of small donations as opposed to a small number of large ones. This is evident in "text campaigns", when donors text a word to a special number to donate a few pounds, and in "ethical giving" online campaigns, where one can "buy"a meal or a course of medical treatment for someone that needs it.

But do charities value these small donors in the same way they value their large, wealthy benefactors? Have they thought about how they will encourage those donors to continue to remain engaged with their cause, or are they still relying on spam email newsletters and the occasional JC news story?

Increasingly, charities look to charitable foundations for support and this requires a completely different approach. A cold call and a speculative meeting may once have been enough to secure the support of a
charitable foundation but as the queue for support grows longer, charities must be more imaginative to achieve the same result.

Last month, a number of papers carried the story of a revolutionary sun cream that gave the user a tan three times darker than a natural tan. Over a quarter of a million people saw the advertising or visited the website only to discover that, in fact, the project was a PR stunt to raise awareness about skin cancer by a charity called "Skcin".

This type of creativity can set charities apart from their competitors (I use the word advisedly) and will energise supporters.

Donors are fed up with fundraising dinners where the appeal consists of a whinge about the recession and their deficit. The charities in our community do great work. They should be proud of that and talk about who they help and how.

Our charities have a responsibility to ask themselves the following: Do we really know who we're relying on for funding? Is that sustainable? How are we ensuring that they can see clearly what their generosity is achieving?

One might argue that with less money in the community, we're headed for a 'natural selection', whereby each of us will support those we deem the most worthy and those that we cannot support will be forced to close their doors.

Excellent charities which have failed to ask these questions and react appropriately will be the ones to lose out.

Shimon Cohen is chairman of the PR Office, which specialises in community & non-profit organisations

Last updated: 10:20am, September 5 2011