John Maino

Marketing challenges in the third sector

In Charity and Third Sector by Tom Cannon

Digital transformation, negative press stories and an increasingly saturated market are three of the main marketing challenges currently experienced in the third sector. We speak to some leading third sector communication experts to find out more about how charities are addressing them.

Building up trust

The UK would donate £655m more to the third sector each year, if they had access to more information about evidence of impact and exactly how their money would be spent. This sceptical culture is no doubt reinforced by negative press.

Zoe Amar, founder and director of Zoe Amar Communications, agreed this is a challenge for charities: “The frequent negative press stories about the sector in the last year mean that charities need to manage their reputations very carefully and strengthen relationships with existing supporters.”

David Salmon, Marketing Manager at Parkinson’s UK, is improving their communication to address this issue: “Trust in charities is very low due to recent negative media stories on the sector over the past 18 months and so we are constantly working to ensure we demonstrate our commitment to our donors as well communicating the importance of our work and its impact.”

Better communication with potential stakeholders could be the key to increasing funding and spreading their message wide and far. But getting their attention could prove difficult, as we’re about to find out.

Gaining attention in a saturated market

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Megan Griffith Gray, head of Digital and Communications at the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO), sums this issue up: “It’s how to get the attention of busy people who receive so many messages.”

This is particularly challenging if your cause isn’t well understood to begin with, something David Salmon has experienced: “The third sector is a saturated market with thousands of charities all vying for the same public purse.  Awareness and understanding of Parkinson’s is low compared to other health conditions and therefore getting people without a personal connection to the cause to engage with our work can be more difficult, especially with smaller budgets than some of the bigger charities.”

Paul Vanags, Head of Public Fundraising at Oxfam, told us how they keep things clear at Oxfam: “We have a single minded brand narrative – We Won’t Live With Poverty. With the complexities of multi-channel marketing it’s more important than ever to have a clear simple idea which goes across all brand touch points”.

Cancer research uk

Zoe Amar further explained the issue of budgets: “Budgets are very tight yet there is more demand for charities’ services, so it can be hard to justify marketing spend.” It really is a catch 22, as it’s often those very marketing efforts that often go on to increase fundraising and awareness.

Jacqui Kean, a senior marketing manager at Cancer Research UK, told us the third sector faces many of the same challenges as commercial companies’ experience, which includes: “Having to find ways to cut through and get attention in an increasingly busy media environment where audiences float between traditional and digital channels and consume messages across different devices.”

Having a coherent marketing strategy – one which cuts across traditional and digital –  seems to be crucial for getting the message across, which brings us onto the third challenge.

Thriving in a digital world

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A 2016 report by CharityComms explores the way the third sector views digital technology. Their research found that while heads of digital understood the shift in thinking that is required to achieve a real digital transformation – the rest of the organisation doesn’t: 80% of digital specialists think the technology required a fundamental shift in the way charities work – yet only 34% think their leaders understand this.

To add further credit to this, Lloyds Bank’s 2015 research found that charities have the lowest industry sector score for digital maturity, with 58% reporting a lack of basic digital skills.

Zoe Amar thinks that developing these skills is going to become increasingly important: “Charities need to understand that digital is no longer about tools and tactics- it’s now a governance and strategy issue. Leadership is key as boards and executive teams must develop their digital skills and put these channels at the heart of their strategy. And charities need to develop the right culture for digital, so more collaborative, innovative and unafraid to ‘fail fast.’”

Megan Griffith Gray told us that while “digital is a massive issue for charities” she thinks “the use of digital in communications is reasonably well developed in many charities.” Nevertheless she thinks improving digital skills is vital: “It’s important for charities to invest in skills and learning, as the landscape changes so often.”

There is perhaps sometimes the expectation for things to take off astronomically online and if they don’t this is seen as a failure. But while Zoe Amar thinks viral campaigns are exciting, she told us: “They are rare and unusual- I describe them as blue unicorns.  #Nomakeupselfie raised £8 million in 6 days for CRUK. Charities shouldn’t pin their hopes on their content ‘going viral.’ Creating a really solid campaign strategy with good collateral that will resonate with your audience is the best place to start.”

Case Study: Cancer Research

Stewart Black

Stewart Black

Jacqui Kean described how the marketing teams are addressing the unique challenges of the third sector at Cancer Research UK.

Multiple fundraising ideas: “Firstly by having a portfolio of fundraising products that appeal to different groups of people – from Race for Life to Dryathlon, and Kids & Teens to legacies.”

A clear vision: “Secondly, by having a strong brand, with a clear vision and values that stands out from other charities and clearly communicates our point of difference and a reason for people to support us – the research that we fund to save lives and develop kinder treatments.”

Utilising technology: “Also, by making sure that we develop technology that makes it easy for people to transact with us online, offline and by mobile phone.”

Build relationships: “Finally, by making sure that we build loyalty and trust with our supporters against a background of declining trust in the charity sector.”

Case Study: Oxfam

Paul Vanags explained to us how Oxfam views digital as an opportunity, rather than a challenge: “Oxfam is investing in innovation and digital as well as continuing to test new ways of delivering our core products. We have an acronym “LIME” which stands for Low Irritation, Mass Engagement which is how we frame our vision for public fundraising. Hindsight is 20:20, but it should not have been a massive surprise that using hard-sell marketing techniques which annoy people is not a sustainable strategy.”

Part of the ongoing challenge is engaging with young people, something Oxfam are very aware of: “Traditional notions of charity are not held by younger people in the same way they are for older generations. Again we should see this as an opportunity. Younger people are more connected and more informed, but just as pro-social as their forebears. They will interrogate charity propositions with more scrutiny than ever before. In return however they can become passionate advocates and influence others. Oxfam has a vibrant social media presence to promote our ideas and conversation, we are also continuing to invest in digital channels and grow our face to face fundraising – our best source of younger donors”.

A need for data


Megan Griffith Gray told us: “People expect relevant communications, which means you need to understand your relationship and target/tailor your communication appropriately.”

Zoe Amar agrees market research is becoming increasingly important: “The needs of charities’ stakeholders are evolving rapidly. The digital age means that there are multiple touchpoints and moments of truth. Many organisations have to reinvent the way they do business and market themselves. So in my view market research is more important than ever. How else can you keep pace with your audience?”

Jacqui Kean explained how research allows charities to understand and connect with their audience: “In an increasingly competitive market, research is absolutely fundamental to understanding and then connecting with our audience. It enables us to develop insights to inform innovation and product development, communication strategies and crucially to evaluate the impact of the marketing and ensure that campaigns and promotional activity are as efficient and effective as they can be.”


Paul explained to us how the way in which research is used at Oxfam is evolving: “The traditional focus group and online surveys have a place, but outcomes have to be interpreted. The emergence of Behavioural Economics has taught us about the massive gap between what people think and say, to how they actually behave in practice. There remains no way of finding out if something is a good idea than actually doing it. We are developing more ways of listening directly to our supporters as well as finding quick, low-cost ways of piloting new ideas.”

Research can be a valuable tool in getting to know an audience and tailoring marketing messages and communication effectively. This is particularly true in our multichannel, digitalised world where everyone is potentially just a click away.