I spotted a report in Third Sector, the UK nonprofit sector news weekly, that reminded me of discussions I’ve had recently with several organisations about the challenge of brand reputation management in our ever more online-informed consumer world.
The Third Sector report was about charities asking to be removed from a new online fundraising site called aliveandgiving.com, which launched last month and describes itself as follows:
“AliveandGiving.com is an innovative charity fundraising and comparison website that helps you find charities that you can trust. You can search for and donate to thousands of registered UK charities and easily access their financial information via their profile page, so you can be sure that your chosen charity is transparent and effective. The idea is not only to help you find a charity that you want to support, but also to reassure you that your money is accounted for.”
Central to the site’s proposition is that the profile provided for each charity listed also details the % of donated funds spent on the cause – based on data sourced from The Charity Commission for England & Wales. On this basis the site aims to deliver its users the promised comparative data through which they can find charities they can trust.
Straight-away, this seems likely to give experienced fundraisers cause for concern. Because not only is calculating % funds spent on cause in a sufficiently standardised way to allow true comparison a serious challenge, there is also not necessarily a direct correlation between this single metric and a charity’s actual performance and impact on the ground. Yet surely true cause impact is a key factor on which any trust and effectiveness comparison must be made? For example, is it really true that Save the Children with a claimed ‘Charitable Spend’ percentage of 90% (on a stated £208m total spend) is less effective in the ‘Overseas Aid / Famine Relief’ category than The International Save The Children Alliance Charity who scores an cracking 98% (on a £5.6m spend)? Well, if I’m a consumer more used to searching comparison websites for competitive insurance quotes than thinking about the relative cause impact of charities then it could well appear so.
Therein is a great example of one of the online reputation management challenges fundraisers face today. Because in these days of open data sources and APIs it is ever more easy to collate data into an easy accessible format and to set-up a very impressive looking comparison site. Add to this integration with social media and you’ve got very authentic-looking, but potentially completely misleading, information being spread through the newsfeeds of well meaning donors to their whole social graph.
And all of this is probably going-on without you having any knowledge of it. This is certainly the case with aliveandgiving.com who, rather than letting the organisations it lists know that they have a comparison profile on the site, seem to have simply launched with a listing for every charity on The Charity Commission register – which led to the Third Sector story on what seems likely to be the first of many de-listing requests.
Now, the purpose of my writing this is not to have a go at the people behind aliveandgiving.com – who I’m sure aren’t consciously setting-out to mislead potential donors. Nor is it in any way to cast doubt on the idea of helping inform potential donors such that they can make more assured, and hopefully more frequent, donations to charities they believe to be doing great work. I absolutely believe in this, although I do think that achieving it requires more sophistication than giving-out a single financial performance metric – perhaps more along the lines of Philanthropedia’s formalised effectiveness assessments.
All of this is meant simply as a reminder that the days when you had complete control over what is said on behalf of your brand are now well and truly behind us. Such control is never coming back and fundraisers and marketers alike need to accept this and adapt the way they approach reputation management to at least try to keep track of what is being said in their name online. There are a growing range of tools available to help you rise to this challenge, but as a first step it’s worth simply taking a look online to see just what is being said about you by people you don’t know – starting with some searching through Google and the search engines on the major social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Then you can at least begin to assess the level of reputational risk your specific organisation may be facing – and you may well also find a whole online supporter community that you didn’t know you had.
UPDATE: Third Sector now reports that following concern being raised by charities about donations being taken by aliveandgiving.com without their consent, the site has been modified to remove the ‘donate’ button from all charities listed other than those from who approval has been received. It will be interesting to see how many do give approval to be represented on the site – and whether this will leave aliveandgiving with sufficient donations to keep running at their current 5% commission rate.