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Communicating Causes: A review

Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan’s 2014 prediction that the 21st Century would be the “era of the NGO” is an appropriate starting point for Communicating Causes - an all encompassing new book on the state of campaigning in the charity sector.

The book, launched at a PRCA Charity and Not for Profit event last night, is a compilation of essays covering a range of facets of campaigning and will become the go to bible for anyone wanting the history of campaigns, the ethical considerations of campaigning and practical inspiration on how to campaign effectively.

The overwhelming take out from the book is a sense that the charity and not-for-profit sector takes its responsibility to communicating causes seriously. There is much thought on the proud history and philosophical basis for NGO campaigning and as the European Communications Monitor found, communicators in not-for-profit organisations tend to have more ethical dilemmas than those in the commercial or public sectors.

This strong moral compass can be harnessed to promote civic values and gain public support for non-profits. From the outset of the book, it’s clear that “non-profit PR can help shape and mobilise public and political will to secure major change. while promoting non-profits role within civil society as its organised voice.”

As Brian Lamb warns, however, “if the public loses faith in non-profits championing of a civil society ethos and feels it has lost connection with the communities it represents then the legitimacy to be the voice of civil society will become more contested”.

NCVO’s Elizabeth Chamberlain and Stuart Etherington pick up this point. They highlight that research by the Charity Commission found that public trust and confidence in charities had fallen to the lowest recorded level since monitoring began in 2005: from 6.7 out of 10 in 2014 to 5.7 in 2016.

However, these assertions need to be seen in context of the wider Edelman research which shows trust in all organisations is declining and charities are actually still out performing other organisations. Things are not as bad as we think.

With six pretty basic recommendations to trustees on what to do to protect reputation, this section fails to move forward the vital debate on charity reputation. Indeed, it only serves to highlight how charity representative bodies have not done nearly enough to protect and further the reputation of the charitable sector in the past.

There is scant reference to the UK’s Lobbying Act which has had a chilling effect on campaigners. Campaigning by non-profits is being increasingly perceived as a political issue, but this must be resisted and campaigners should be enabled to campaign effectively within the law – such as by following the guidance in Campaign Collective’s “Freedom To Campaign Guide.”

The chapter on branding could also be questioned for its hierarchical approach to what is one of the most fundamental elements of a campaign. Beneficiaries and service users are given scant attention in favour of a focus on donors in its advice on how to brand a campaign. 

This may seem a purists’ complaint, but the point is vital. At the heart of charity campaigns must be the people the charity seeks to help or represent. The examples cited don’t mention the involvement of these groups. And given the excellent chapter on the ethics of a charity’s role in representing people and using case studies, this should be a vital discussion point: should branding start with the donor or the beneficiary and how do the voices of both groups interact?

These minor criticisms aside, the book goes on to examine the vital area of risk management. With success making NGOs a target in their own right, Michaela O’Brien’s chapter raises a vital point: Should the NGO approach to risk management be organisational or issue/ societal focussed.

It’s a vital distinction. No organisation should believe it has the absolute monopoly on an issue nor a right to exist forever. As O’Brien sets out:

“One difference in the approach to issues management by different sectors is that businesses tend to focus on issues management from an organisational perspective. Their main concern is the potential risk to the reputation or bottom-line of the business, with societal impacts either overlooked entirely or seen as subsidiary to business interests.

“By contrast, non-profit organisations tend to approach issues management as societal rather than organisational in scope. NGOs welcome public debate around issues as an opportunity to represent the interests of those for whom they advocate, and to discuss potential solutions to societal problems, regardless of the role of the individual NGO in those solutions.

“I suggest that non-profit practitioners undertake issues management in two ways: firstly through applying a societal perspective to issues rather than a solely organisational perspective, and secondly through anticipating and countering attacks on their legitimacy.”

There is a useful discussion on the not for profit sector’s “survival and effectiveness increasingly depend[ing] on its ability to effectively assess, master and deploy digital technologies,” including an interesting example of the use of Blockchain successfully in fundraising by St Mungos.

Corporate partnerships, internal communications, measurement, sector and global specific chapters (such as trade union and International NGO campaigning) all come under the microscope in the book, with the result that Communicating Causes is not just a reference book or an academic text for students, but has the potential to become a living resource to help all campaigners – here’s to the second edition!


Simon Francis, Chair of the PR & Communication Association’s Charity and Not For Profit Group, and Founder Member, Campaign Collective.