Someone is stealing from charities. It’s happening whilst you’re reading this, and it makes the bank bailouts look like someone nicking an Argos pen.
The evidence is all around you if you know what to look for. I give you exhibit A: A billboard campaign about Special K. Except it isn’t.
There’s no mention of breakfast, hunger, nutrition or cereal at all.
That because that’s not the product on offer. They’re selling you confidence, happiness, health and weight loss. Or to be exact, a web support group about those things: myspecialk.co.uk.
These issues might be relatively new to food companies, but they’re not new to charity workers and volunteers.
As pro-social organisations, these are our concerns, our causes, our stories.
Yet these stories are being told by someone else, without our expertise and with one goal in mind: profit.
This theft of our causes isn’t just visible in advertising. It’s weaving it’s way into the very fabric of private companies.
Have a look at the mission statements of these organisations…
“We touch the lives of millions of people each and every day. From special occasions to exceptional moments in everyday life, we are there ... we have impacted the lives of people all over the world.”
You’d be forgiven for thinking I’d lifted these from the annual report of three international charities. But no. I give you the mission statements of Coca Cola, Starbucks and Kelloggs.
These companies are telling stories about charitable causes to win attention from a public increasingly more interested in health, happiness and fairness than they are drinks, cereal and soap.
Take Dove’s compelling Real Beauty Sketches campaign. You’ve probably already seen it – that’s the power of stories like these…
Thanks to a three minute, low budget video about body image. Around 100 million people just connected feeling better about themselves with buying soap instead of finding support from a charity.
And it’s not just misdirecting people that need support, it’s also misdirecting people that want to support charitable causes too. The top comment on the YouTube page for the video says it all…
Katie wants to give money to “support” a campaign to sell more soap.
Just take a minute and let that sink in.
Taking back what's ours
I don’t blame Dove. I’m not even mad; I just want us to get even.
Many pro-social organisations are reluctant to tell their stories, and adverse to the risk of telling them in new ways. They’re not just leaving the bank vault unlocked, they’re holding the door open whilst these companies walk out the door with something priceless.
The most common worry is that service users won’t like having their stories told, or that confidentiality and data protection considerations make it impossible.
Dove might make soap for sensitive skin, but they aren’t over-sensitive when it comes to shoving a camera in the face of a women with body image issues whilst they make her cry.
I’m not suggesting you go that far. But if a charity did, at least it would be backed up by the support of a caring, competent organisation able to support people with the issue being explored and channel the results of the exposure into dealing with the issue.
We must find a way.
The rewards for finding a way to tell the stories of the people we help, of the lives we change, and the massive challenges we support people to overcome are too great to ignore.
Soap companies know this. Drink companies know this. Cereal companies know this. That’s why they’re inventing these stories – and why we’re losing out to them every day.
But we have something they don’t. We don’t have to find clever ways to imply we change lives and tackle social issues because we do. Day in, day out.
We just need to learn to start talking about it. Talking about it in ways people actually want to read and watch. Ways that make people want to share it with their friends.
When was the last time you shared a random charity press release, or an annual report, or a support leaflet with a friend?
A compelling video, an inspirational story, a shocking image. Something that makes you laugh, something that makes you cry. Something that makes you grin from ear to ear like a loon and think “my mum is going to love this”. Well, I imagine you’ve lost count of the number of times you’ve shared those.
In other words, we must take back and tell our stories. They are our products, our proof and our weapons in the fight for funding and support.
Because if we don’t, someone else will.