Charities and content marketing

Brands are used to harnessing the power of content marketing. Now charities are waking up to its potential to change hearts and minds.

In 2018, charity donations in the UK topped a staggering £10.1 billion, according to the Charities Aid Foundation Just Giving 2019 survey.

That’s the good news. But now for the bad news – the same research revealed that trust in charities has decreased significantly since 2016, from 51% to 48% of respondents agreeing that they believe charities to be trustworthy.

These findings are supported by a 2018 survey carried out by the UK Charity Commission, where respondents were asked to rate how much different factors affected their trust in charities.

Researchers found that “transparency about where money goes” was the most important factor, with an average score of 8.8 out of 10, followed by being “true to their values”, on 8.5.

This lack of transparency is having a serious impact on potential donations. Research by independent think tank New Philanthropy Capital revealed that the UK public would part with £655m more of their hard-earned cash if they had access to transparency.

The traditional “Give us ‘x and we’ll do ‘y’” marketing messages are too simplistic to convince a sceptical public. And while hard-hitting ad campaigns tug at the heartstrings and persuade people to make ad hoc donations, they don’t build long-term relationships.

It seems trust and transparency are the way to win hearts and open wallets – and this is where content marketing really comes into its own.

Like smart for-profit brands, charities can engage the public on a more emotional level by storytelling across multiple channels.

Supporters have two key questions: “What do you do with our money?” and “How is it making a difference?” When they’re rooted in real experiences, a charity’s answers can be extraordinarily powerful. Authentic, surprising, moving… the stories they can tell are marketing gold dust.

Twenty years ago, Bookmark helped set up StreetSmart, a charity that fundraises via restaurants to support homeless charities. Homelessness is a complex issue, but the fundraising mechanic is a simple one: in November and December restaurants add a voluntary donation of £1 per table to diners’ bills. Over 20 years, the charity has raised more than £8m.

In its 20th anniversary year, StreetSmart decided to celebrate this achievement and raise awareness of the ongoing need for fundraising. The charity told its story in a printed book, 20 Years, 20 Stories.

The stories were human ones: how the charity was founded, what inspired restaurateurs to sign up, the charity workers who worked at a local level with homeless people, people who’ve experienced homelessness and who’ve turned their lives around. Their stories were moving and inspiring in equal measure.

Giving these stories even more poignancy were the remarkable portraits by photographer Giles Duley, whose work largely focuses on humanitarian issues and the effect of conflict on civilians. Shot against a simple sheet as a backdrop, his pictures have an extraordinary dignity and speak volumes about the power of the human spirit.

Amplified across social media, the rich content of 20 Years, 20 Stories speaks to existing and potential StreetSmart supporters in a language that connects at an emotional level. A language that’s hard to ignore.

Our Canadian colleagues, too, have joined forces with local restaurants in aid of the homeless, in Montreal and Toronto. In November 2013, Chef-owner David Ferguson of Restaurant Gus in Montreal, began Socks for Bubbly, offering complimentary sparkling wine to any patron who contributed to a sock drive – this year, 36 restaurants in two provinces participated.

Bookmark staff have lent their talents to the cause on an annual basis since 2018: by designing a website and campaign logo, creating content for participating establishments to share on their social platforms, coordinating recruitment and media outreach, and more. Upwards of 42,000 pairs of socks have been donated to homeless shelters in the two cities to date. With a goal of not just collecting socks but also raising awareness of the need homeless people have for them, a multichannel publicity campaign has helped to tell an important story.

This article was originally published on February 8, 2018, and updated on December 4, 2019.