(blog post by Andrew Thorp)
I had an interesting chat with a lady from The Wildlife Trust the other day, a charity dedicated to protecting endangered species and landscapes. She’s in charge of membership recruitment which in turn provides the main financial platform for the entire organisation.
We discussed the message the Trust was trying to get across and of course this is what might be described as its core ‘story’. This is the Big Picture, the macro message and they’re clearly doing great work to protect the environment and encourage humans to engage with the natural world. They are, what my mentor David Carter would call ‘MAD’ – Making A Difference!
But it got me wondering if we’ve got this the wrong way around. Is the role of a charity to solicit donations from people who then sit back and wait for the organisation to do its work? Or should it be more than that? Should a charity also be there to encourage, support and connect individuals to make a difference themselves, on a micro basis?
I was reminded of this recently when reading a blog on the TED web site (TED is a global community of people interested in sharing ideas). Its boss Chris Anderson was asked a searching question by an event attendee – “Have there been any TED talks that have resulted in actual change?” The inference was that perhaps TED is just a talking shop and that nothing actually changes in the real world. He replied by saying that rather than expecting governments or systems to change as a result of a TED talk, it’s more constructive to look at what’s happened on an “individual viewer” level. In other words, someone may change the way they think and behave after watching a talk, and the compound effect of millions of micro shifts around the world actually makes a big impact.
The problem is, these micro acts rarely get recognised as significant stories. And when individuals act in isolation it can be hard for them to sustain their efforts. That’s why people join self-help groups like Weight Watchers – they gain succour and support from others who feel the same way they do.
My point is that charities should reconsider their role. To quote a line from Seth Godin’s wonderful book ‘Tribes’ they should “establish the foundation for people to make connections.” A charity is based around a cause and attracts people who see things the same way – that’s a tribe. So the role of the organisation is to make its supporters feel good about their tribal membership. That would be:
- telling them where their money goes and how it’s making a difference
- letting them share their individual stories
- making it easy for them to communicate with one another.
Charities are normally pretty good at the first one, but less so with 2 and 3. But it’s ALWAYS those individual stories which resonate with people. When people make a positive contribution to the environment it impacts the landscape but it also impacts the individual. It might help them lose weight, make friends, gain confidence, open their eyes, give them renewed purpose or change their outlook on life. All wonderful stories, and it’s this as much as anything else which attracts NEW people to the cause. Those ‘micro-narratives’ become the magnet.
So give people a voice – make it easy for them to share their experiences, connect them with other tribal members, celebrate and appreciate what they’ve done and watch those micro movements combine into something powerful and wide-ranging.
If you want to connect with the Wildlife Trust, here are the links: