7 lessons from 13 years at VONNE

Facebook didn’t exist when I first started at VONNE. Nor YouTube or Twitter. Looking back on my 13 years at VONNE as Communications Manager, my job in 2003 is hardly recognisable in today’s world. I certainly don’t miss the all hands on deck stuffing envelopes with our printed newsletter ‘The VINE’, and the accompanying significant postage costs.

I’m moving on from VONNE this month, leaving a wonderful job and fantastic colleagues to become freelance. I’m continuing on the path I started a couple of years ago of helping charities with their communications, whether that’s websites, ebulletins, strategy, social media, training and creating content.

So for once I’m writing a blog, instead of nagging colleagues to do theirs, taking a moment to reflect on seven key lessons I’ve learnt about charity communications in that time.

1. Your website is still King – invest in it

I’ve noticed too many smaller charities neglect their website, creating it then leaving it to fester and rarely updating it. It’s the first thing people look at when considering funding you/donating/considering a job/researching you as a partner to work with. So I beg you to take a look at your site. Is it up to date? Does it reflect your brand, key messages? Even the basics like are contact details up to date, staff pages accurate? Does it still work on a mobile device? Whilst you might not have a dedicated comms person to run the site, don’t neglect it, it’s your shop front and face to the world.

2. Post-truth news and taking a long hard look at ourselves

The fallout from media coverage of dodgy fundraising practices over the past few years has started to taint all of us, not just the big players. A recent survey shows the general public’s trust is down 18% from the previous year. It’s up to charities to rebuild that trust, show impact, be transparent in fundraising, and show we shouldn’t be all tarred with the same brush. Charity Today is a new sector-led campaign that aims to improve the public’s understanding of how we operate. In this post-truth world it’s essential we’re all prepared to defend and promote the vital work we do.

3. Social media – don’t spread yourself too thin

When I first signed VONNE up to Twitter in 2009 it was still a curious tool that no-one was quite sure of the point of (I’m sure some of you reading are still thinking this!). It’s now for many an indispensable way of communicating with journalists, policy makers and influencers, reaching audiences we could only dream of when we just had email. However, social media and the hundreds of formats that term now covers can also be a time-sucker, damaging to your brand if used badly, and requires time to get the rewards from it.

So take stock every once in a while to measure and analyse how you use it. Is it supporting your organisational objectives? Do you have a plethora of accounts sitting around not being kept up to date? If so, cut them right back and focus on doing one or two well rather than spreading yourself too thin just because you feel you have to be on the latest whizz-bang trend. By all means innovate, but don’t build up a dusty collection of accounts that become a poor reflection on your brand. And yes, VONNE is guilty as charged of having a dusty old Pinterest account if you go looking….

4. Email still rocks

It was predicted email would become redundant in this brave new world of social media. It hasn’t, and it’s still as important as ever. I’m also a huge fan of ebulletins/newsletters as being an effective way of keeping your supporters and stakeholders up to date on what your charity is up to. They need to be well written, concise, and really clear about the audience and their interests. Target your ebulletins to your different audiences. Link back to your website and social media tools. And best of all, use the free tools out there to create them. Which brings me nicely on to….

5. Free tools are awesome

Some amazing tools have popped up in my time here that I wish had existed from day one. They make my job so much easier and best of all are free. My particular favourites are Mailchimp for ebulletins, Canva for creating graphics and banners, and Trello for project management and generally organising my life. And a big plug to Charity Comms, the industry body that supports people like me. They have a TON of resources on their site that I’ve dipped into many a time.

6. Being concise is more important than ever

In this age of information overload, being concise is a valuable skill. The trick is to write content that's brilliant yet brief, colourful yet concise. Charities are rich in stories, case studies and powerful messages. Delivering them well is the key.

7.Communications isn’t a luxury

Communications matters to charities: we don’t communicate just to tell people about the change we’ve made in the world, we communicate to make change happen. Many smaller charities don’t have the resources to pay for a dedicated comms person. But still need someone to update the website, send emails to supporters, organise events, run social media accounts, create newsletters/leaflets/reports, write the annual review.

These important jobs often get given to people who are busy doing other essential things or haven’t had training. Even if you can’t employ someone, make sure the team you have understand the importance of it, and are given the the right tools, training and time to perform this vital function to the best of their abilities.

I could waffle on all day about charity communications, but that would go against lesson 6 of being concise! 

Fortunately I’ll not be a stranger as I continue working with charities. You can find me at www.carriebrookes.co.uk (shameless plug) and best of luck to you all in these difficult times, North East charities continue to be a strong, vibrant and inspirational network that VONNE and myself are proud to support.