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Charities, Don’t be Afraid to Admit to Marketing Costs!

Why are charities reluctant to admit to marketing costs?

During a recent charity training session I ran, there was a discussion about charity brands. I explained that large charities invest in marketing to raise awareness of their brands, which in turn attracts donations to their cause and very importantly, new potential beneficiaries to the charity.

Given my audience comprised small charities, most without a marketing budget, I was asked how much large brands spend on marketing each year. Well, this is a very natural question, but not easy to answer.

This question reminded me of when I was writing an assignment about charity marketing some years ago. Wanting to learn from the best, I was delighted to secure an interview with one of the UK’s leading charities. So, off I went, notebook in hand.

During my interview with the charity’s Marketing Manager, I learned that this long-established, well-known, national charity had updated its strategic brand positioning. It was fascinating and the Marketing Manager told me the charity had used a leading London-based, brand design agency. Great, I thought, this amazing charity’s brand deserves the country’s best talent.

However, when the Marketing Manager admitted to keeping quiet about the design and marketing costs, I was not surprised; but I admit that I was disappointed. Her charity’s re-branding exercise had cost thousands of pounds, just as any commercial national brand re-design would. Her thinking was that supporters would be shocked at the design agency’s costs and feared it would not be perceived as good use of the charity’s funds. It would deter other supporters, she advised.

Back to my training session. The point I had wanted to make was that charities do not just grow organically, but they require marketing and communications plans to grow. I had developed a presentation slide that listed 10 powerful UK charity brands, along with their annual income levels.

Now in my preparation, I had actually read through all the charities’ annual reports and accounts; my beady eyes scanning to uncover their marketing costs..... Yes, I really am a sad charity-geek!.... I admit I was also not surprised that I could not find those details. My guess is that those marketing expenditure figures were contained, maybe hidden, in the “overheads” columns, but I have no way of knowing.

The truth is this, marketing works. All charities, large and small, need to get their brands’ voice heard and benefit from increased profile. While charities can undertake some marketing activities at low or no costs through volunteers and pro-bono consultancy, there are times when investing in design and adverting is extremely beneficial. Such expenditure should be viewed as an investment in the charity’s brand. But having led small charities for years, I know all too well that this may be difficult for Boards of small charities to accept.

However, it would help our sector if charity brands were more transparent about their marketing costs. Yes, it will mean we must clearly explain the requirement for marketing expenditure to our boards, supporters and funders. Being transparent and educating others about our charities’ costs may be challenging, but it is important.

After all, commercial organisations do not apologise for having marketing costs to grow their brands. Neither should the voluntary sector.