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I often feel that the charity sector needs a rebrand because it is poorly understood and its value is constantly under recognised. This is a problem because without the support of the public, charities will cease to exist.

I began talking to Paul de Gregorio after he shared a post on LinkedIn where he expressed his frustrations of charities that treat the public like ATM’s. Paul is the founder of the agency Rally and specialises in digital engagement & mobilisation strategy for charities. He is convinced that the sector needs a radical change in the way it seeks to attract the public’s support in order to remain relevant. Before Rally, Paul worked for one of the UK’s largest fundraising and communications agencies in the UK, where he was the Director of Digital Engagement.

I spoke to Paul to learn how charities can better attract the public’s support at scale and convert that support into action.

Charities have had to shift almost all of their fundraising online this year, what should the focus of their digital strategies be from 2021?

I think a key point to make right up front is that in my view, charities really need to think about their strategies to engage the public at scale behind their mission, vision and values. And then accept that in 2020 and beyond, this means having a radically improved approach to digital engagement.

A key challenge for me is how digital teams are positioned in a lot of organisations. In most cases they are ‘added’ to another team and it’s very rare that high-level digital expertise sits on the senior team of an organisation. This is a key problem because until we have digital expertise represented at the highest level, I fear digital will always be viewed as a delivery channel.

From a delivery perspective, the organisations that haven’t really established how all of the elements of their digital ecosystem interconnect to drive scale will struggle over the medium to long term – as they will continue with a campaign, as opposed to always on mindset. Now is the moment, to pause and reflect on the basics of your digital activity. I’ve seen the most rapid transformations in digital programmes when people pause and focus on structure and strategy, before putting any effort into creating Facebook ads, propositions, campaigns or virtual events.

You may find it helpful to ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do you know who is visiting your website? What are they looking at? How do they interact with your site?
  • Have you got all of our tracking set up in place to drive all of the advertising that you want to do in other channels?
  • Do you have an amazing email experience? Are you seeking to interact with people via email?
  • Do you have a good approach to creating these emails or are they simply an afterthought?

As a sector, we seem to be obsessed with creative, campaigns and tactics. My hope for 2021 is that more organisations invest in digital analytics and then double down on the metrics behind each part of their digital ecosystem. Doing that will uncover the areas of your existing programme to improve, and focussed improvement will drive more engagement, more action, more money and ultimately more impact.

Another problem I see in organisations is that they tend to develop public engagement strategies by function independently of one another, a comms strategy, advocacy strategy, and so on. This will, more often than not, lead to a fragmented user experience for the public.

I’m a huge fan of adopting a mobilisation mindset. Mobilisation is defined as ‘the action of organising & encouraging a group of people to take collective action in pursuit of a particular objective.’ Suppose you start thinking in those terms, about mobilising the public behind your brand, vision and values. In doing so, you’ll move away from the mindset of simply trying to flog people products.

What we’re really trying to do is attract those people that share your values and believe in your mission. That can see a bit of themselves in you, the sort of people that want to invest some of their own social capital in your cause.

Once we’ve got people who are interested in what you’re doing. We can then try to convert that interest into action. So in short, I advocate mobilisation strategies that elevate values over products, and use those values to attract people.

With so many good causes competing for people’s attention, how do charities stand out?

I think as a sector we’ve tried to mirror commercial practice by adopting capitalist models of growth. There is this notion that we can only be successful if we’re a large organisation that ‘sells’ lots of things. You can see this most clearly when you look at the largest charities in the sector, they follow similar models and in many cases are trying to ‘sell’ the same products e.g. monthly gifts, raffle tickets, legacy gifts etc.

I think that most charities would benefit from refocusing on their core mission and really understand what it is that they want to achieve.

Following on from my previous answer, charities need to talk about themselves in a way that acknowledges that they can’t achieve their mission alone. Charities need to be clear about who they are, what their purpose is, and what their values are. They then need to take their time to clearly communicate that to the public.

I’m an advocate of taking inspiration from the past and applying key principles to our current context. And as we are in the business of change, I spend a lot of time studying social movements of the past and recent history. The most successful movements that have captured the public’s imagination all have a clear vision and a believable plan to deliver that vision. Think of the Suffragette movement, the Civil Rights movement and recently the Marriage Equality movement.

A ‘believable plan to deliver on your mission is key. If you want me to invest my social capital into your movement, I want to attach myself to something that has a chance of success in our shared goal. So I’d really like to understand your plan, and I don’t think we spend enough time communicating how we’re going to deliver on our promises.

I want charities to give me useful things to do rooted in the plan! Rather than a series of impersonal transactions like buying raffle tickets.

You spent 7 years at Open, during that time you were their director of digital engagement, what were the key lessons that you learnt during this time.

I think that there was a time when charities were overly reliant on offline fundraising channels. There was a real lack of certainty and understanding about how to make the move to digital channels. This lack of understanding led to unnecessary barriers being put in the way of moving forward.

I learnt that to help the sector and the agency improve their digital offer, I first needed to do some myth-busting and confidence building. I met so many brilliant people with a wealth of offline knowledge that would freeze when digital was mentioned. They’d wrongly assume that digital was something that they didn’t know or understand.

Yet from an engagement perspective, you just need to understand basic maths and logic. This will help you know what metrics are driving performance, and then you can take the necessary steps to improve those metrics. You don’t need to be the person that builds the website or sets up the tracking – unless of course that’s the job you applied for!

I learnt the importance of helping to build an organisation’s digital competencies so that they had a better sense of what transferable skills they had. This enabled them to identify gaps, and bring in specific expertise.

My biggest learning has come in the area of creative development and execution. In an offline world, clients and agencies have well established processes that produce the single best creative idea that matches the brief. Even if the brief was wrong and built off of flawed or misinterpreted insight. Digital is different. With digital you don’t have to come up with the single best creative, to be truly effective, I’d argue that you should be aiming for a wide spectrum of creative approaches – with audience response driving future creative development. Many organisations and agencies find this a hard model to move to because it’s not how they were trained to operate – however actual response to a wide range of creative will always trump projected response to the single ad the agency creative director and charity marketing director was happy to sign off.

You now head up your own agency, Rally, where you help your clients attract the public’s support at scale and convert that support into action. What causes are you passionate about at the moment? Where do you feel that with the right support, we can really make a difference?

There is an intersectionality of all of the key challenges that we face today. The issues that we face regarding human rights, the climate crisis, racial injustice and the patriarchy – they’re all interconnected. I’m working with organisations that are beginning to understand how everything is connected. One of the reasons I get so excited when I talk about this is that this new mindset paves the way for collaboration – something as a sector we need to get much better at.

As I mentioned before, I don’t think that most organisations have the right operating models in place and structure to enable people to help them deliver on their promises. I’m very interested in figuring out how to develop new models and structures to support the sector to unlock “people power.” As a sector, we need to move away from simply broadcasting our messages to the masses. We need to stop just telling people what we think and why they should help us. We need to prove to people that they have power, and they can use that power to help us achieve specific objectives. Marcus Rashford and his campaigning around child food poverty proved this, his campaigning has proved to people that if enough people care about an issue and use their voices pressure can be applied to decision makers that drives change.

As a sector, we could be doing so much more to build new power structures. If I could achieve one thing with Rally, I’d like to help create the change that proves to the public that they have power and helps make it easier for them to activate their power. And from a sector perspective, I’d love Rally to be an organisation that helps charities and campaign groups change their models of operation so that they can better harness the power and energy of the public.

You are conducting a UK Digital Benchmarks study, can you tell us more about this?

I’ve been interested in the concept of digital engagement for a very long time. It’s what drives the mobilisation model I am so focussed on. In the UK, there is no digital engagement benchmark data for charities to help them to evaluate their digital activities and figure out where to put time, energy and resources.

So Rally has partnered with an amazing digital agency in the USA called M+R Strategies. M+R have run a brilliant Digital Benchmarks Study for over 14 years in the US. And together we’re bringing it to the UK in 2021.

You can read all about it here. The deadline for participation is 13th December 2020.

If you’re interested in the concepts of digital mobilisation that Paul talks about in this interview you should sign up to his email newsletter.

Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash

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