By Caoileann Appleby - Sep 26 2019
If you keep up with fundraising news, fundraising Twitter, or even just news in general, you have likely seen the Daily Mail’s attempt last month to stir up controversy against a charity (they were also joined by The Times).
In the firing line this time was the RNLI – for (gasp!) spending money on “foreigners” (yes, that was genuinely the word used by the Mail. No, I’m not linking to the piece). If you’ve listened to the recent BBC Radio4 piece on the Olive Cooke ‘scandal’, it’s easy to identify the familiar tropes: charities are the villains yet again!
But it was heartening to see the attack, by and large, failed.
What can we learn from how the RNLI responded?
Put values front and centre
In attempting to cast the RNLI as the villain of this manufactured story, the newspapers put themselves on the side of right. It’s not right – in their view – for the RNLI to spend donors’ money on “foreigners”. It would have been easy to go into defensive mode, but the RNLI simply didn’t accept the premise of this framing. It’s not only the right thing to do, it’s what their founder would have wanted:
Our founder, Sir William Hillary, had the vision that we ‘should extend our views [of drowning prevention] from our own immediate coasts, to the most remote quarters of the globe, and to every neighbouring state’.
We are proud of these drowning prevention initiatives, which save mostly children’s lives.
Therefore they’re not only doing the right thing, but also staying true to the values and heritage of the organisation. And given the heritage of the organisation is likely a key driver of existing support, this is powerful.
Explain, but don’t apologise
Key to the attack on the organisation was the implication that the RNLI had been hiding their international work; that donors would – and should – feel duped. In their response, the RNLI addressed this implication head on in their statement:
The RNLI's international work has been reported in detail in our annual reports going back several years and information is also available from the RNLI website and regularly reported elsewhere.
They also explained why they fund creches in Bangladesh and burkinis in Zanzibar: because it prevents deaths by drowning, which is their whole reason for existing! The newspapers deliberately tried to confuse the difference between the charity’s method (in the UK and Ireland, mainly lifeboats) and the mission (preventing death by drowning). The RNLI showed supporters differently.
We work with partners on programmes in Bangladesh to combat the global drowning epidemic. Over 12 lessons children learn basic water safety skills, including how to float, and graduate when they can swim 25 metres. The drowning rate is reduced by 96% for those that graduate. https://t.co/sm8Iyh7ozx— RNLI (@RNLI) September 18, 2019
Show you’re not alone
As well as addressing the criticisms head-on on their website and other communication channels, the RNLI made a point of showcasing the support they were receiving as a result of the piece, thanking and retweeting donors on Twitter and elsewhere:
I donate monthly and will continue to do so - your international work is fine by me, I like the idea that I'm helping to save young lives around the world.— L (@florabotanics) September 15, 2019
As the home of the @RNLI founder Sir William Hillary, the Isle of Man Government is proud to support this scheme with funding from the people of the #IsleofMan. @RNLI @BhasaFloat @CIPRB @GlobalGoalsUN @stephenfry @Benfogle #Bangladesh 🇧🇩 🇮🇲 🏊♂️ https://t.co/YyRzn3hM9L— Isle of Man Government (@IOMGovernment) September 24, 2019
So of the £20 I've been spurred on to donate by the @MailOnline article, about £19.60 is used in the UK and 40p abroad? #storminateacup!! It is right to spread your world class knowledge around the world— Jeff Rayment (@JeffRayment) September 16, 2019
This is not only heartening for them, but is a very effective form of social proofing, showing supporters and the general public that the popular thing to do is to support the organisation.
Of course, while in the short-term the fundraising response looks good, it’s only in the long-term that we will be able to see the full effect on fundraising. But nevertheless, we can all take inspiration from a charity being brave enough to stand up for what it really believes in.