Suit up, charities!


There was a time not long ago when companies used to be the bad guys. They were encouraging consumerism, producing as much as they could, cutting costs, and neglecting the environmental and social implications of their businesses. All along, charities were the good guys: listening to people’s needs, protecting the planet, fighting the good fight. Companies and charities were totally different and anyone could say without hesitation which one is which and what they stand for.

Well, it appears that is not always the case anymore. With the rise of social entrepreneurship and CSR programs on one hand, and social platforms and digital engagement on the other, the lines between businesses and charities are now slowly fading away. Increasingly more ventures are created with ‘social’ at the core, increasingly more charities and NGOs are rethinking the way they work in order to be more professional and competitive.

Macmillan Cancer Support, Oxfam, WWF, and more recently Cancer Research UK and The Institute of Cancer Research are just a few examples of charities that have chosen to rebrand in the last few years. Why is branding gaining traction in the third sector? Why are charities and not-for-profits more eager than ever to establish themselves as brands? Let’s have a look.

The financial crisis obviously took its toll. Given scarcer resources, people are now making more discerning decisions when it comes to giving to charities, while governments also started cutting off funding for the third sector. But looking beyond the economic climate, what other reasons could be responsible for driving branding in the third sector?

The first and probably most important cause is the rise of the social entrepreneurship movement. With roots in CSR, social enterprises approach social and environmental issues as business opportunities, and make profits that they later reinvest for the benefit of their communities. Jamie’s Fifteen, Grameen Bank and Divine Chocolate are just some of the many businesses of this kind. All these bring about a new a kind of competition that charities and NGOs have never really faced before. They are powerful and exciting brands, are more charming, provide experiences for their followers and engage people in a new way. And because of that people tend to be more interested in them rather than traditional charities. So there’s not much else charities can do to compete with this, then to make an extra effort and enter the new branding era.

The second issue has to do with the emergence of social media and the rapid development of the digital space. There are now numerous online tools and platforms (like Kickstarter or Indiegogo) that facilitate the funding of social causes (and not only). This makes it possible for almost anyone to establish a charity or attract funding for their projects. As a result, people have greater choice when deciding how and who to give their money to. There are thousands of charities, from all over the world and they are as diverse as they can be. This proliferation of choice serves as a catalyst for charities to differentiate, to make clear what they stand for and why their cause is more relevant. The rise of social media also means that there’s a greater risk of scams and frauds. Hence a greater need for transparency, honesty and cooperation with consumers. A strong brand helps the consumer develop trust with the charity. It shows that the charity is dedicated to their cause, that they take things seriously and are worthy of our trust and ultimately… our money.

With all these economical, social and technological shifts, it’s hard to pinpoint a specific reason that triggered the recent rebranding trend in the third sector. It’s clear however that charities need to step up their game. It’s not enough to be the good guys anymore. They have to stand for something to stand out, they have to differentiate and project what makes them special. Some have already figured this out, and are now riding the wave. Others are starting to understand that there’s no other way and are following in their footsteps.