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How should small charities handle communications work?

Ann Nichols of the Guardian writes ‘ small organisations are adopting a range of techniques to get their message across’  CJAM specialises in supporting Association, Charity and Business clients with Marketing Communications.

Managing communications for a small charity requires multi-skilled people who can create marketing and PR campaigns, engage with stakeholders, produce e-bulletins, develop websites, deal with journalists, manage events, as well as being a whizz at social media. Most of the bigger charities have large communication teams of 30 staff or more who collectively posses these skills. But for small charities the picture is very different.

About 85% of UK charities are classified as ‘small’ or ‘micro’, with an annual income of less than £500,000 a year. I wanted to find out how these small charities manage their communications. Do they employ staff with skills in marketing and public relations? Do they rely on volunteers? Or do they manage with no communications support at all?

My research initially involved looking at work that has already been done. A common message emerging from research done by The Media Trust, nfpSynergy, the Third Sector Research Centre and the Small Charities Coalition is that, after fundraising, strategic planning and governance, most charities see communications as vitally important. Yet their ability to run a professional communications operation, the resources available and the status of communications within each organisation varies enormously.

To get a real feel for how small charities handle communications I Interviewed ten people from sector-wide organisations, specialist PR companies and employment agencies.

Gareth Spillane from The Foundation for Social Improvement, summed up the big challenge for small charities as lack of confidence in the brand. “Few charities have any idea of how to produce a marketing or PR plan for the whole organisation, let alone a single project,” he says. “So a key task is to help them identify their overall strategy and vision.”

This picture is echoed by Ben Matthews, founder of the volunteer-run agency Bright One. He says: “Many charities have difficulty honing their key messages and pinning down what it is that they do. We need to educate them about how public relations can support them and give them advice on how to build relationships.”

For the very small faith-based charities and community groups, most of which are run by volunteers, communications work tends to be done in a very ad hoc way. “Areas like dealing with journalists is a specialist skill that few people possess,” says Jane Winter of The Faith Based Regeneration Network. “The issue is they can’t do frontline services without publicity but the skills available depend on who is involved in the charity and the skills they possess.”

The people I interviewed from 15 small charities — chief executives, communications specialists and staff with a range of other functions – provided some more insights.

They can be summed up in six different scenarios.

The first is do-it-yourself. Essentially, all communications is handled by one person who is expected to deal with the website, direct mail, e-marketing, events, communicating with members and supporters, media relations and routine administration. There is an expectation that the skills they don’t possess already will be picked up on the job.

Next is the solo pro. This is similar to the DIY person, but the solo pro comes to the role with more experience. The expectation is that, as with the DIY profession, the solo pro can handle most communications. Scanning through recent job adverts, it is quite common for an employer to be asking for someone who can handle direct marketing, the website, social media, research, events and media relations with just three to five years’ experience at a salary of £25,000 to £35,000 a year.

Third is the dream team, found within those charities that can afford to employ more than one person. Only one of the 15 organisations interviewed – an international development charity — had such a team.

Two charities outsourced some or all of their communications work – the fourth scenario. One used a PR agency for media relations and public affairs and one used a freelancer for similar work. It is noticeable that these are two skill sets that few in-house communications people possessed.

The fifth scenario is what I have called ‘salami sliced’. This is where all staff have a role for communications. One rationale for this is that by embedding it into everyone’s role it makes for a more effective organisation. The other is that someone with a generic communications background would be unlikely to have the necessary specialist sector knowledge.

Handing communications on the hoof is the sixth and final scenario. Basically this is typical for ‘below the radar’ and small community organisations who lack any professional expertise in communications. Everything is run on a shoestring and most communications work is handled by volunteers.

What are the implications for charity communicators? It is worrying that communications is seen as something that doesn’t necessarily require people with specialist skills, but encouraging to see that it is high on the list of priorities. Yet few charities were taking advantage of the services (some of it free) offered by organisations like The Media Trust or CharityComms.

Despite directives from government urging charities to cut expenditure on communications, it remains vital to their survival. Small charities will need all the help they can get.

The research was done as part of the Teaching and Teachers course run by the Chartered Institute of Public Relations. Interviews were conducted in August and September 2010.

Download the full report from the CharityComms website

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