Helen Moulinos: In search of our charity voice

I remember as a young girl watching a programme called “In Search Of” in the late 1970s where they would try to find a Yeti, understand the myths of Easter Island, test if Dracula was real, and understand what motivates killer bees. Hosted by Leonard Nimoy, it searched out the great mysteries of the world and sought to bring some context and structure to them. By the time each episode had finished, my overall reaction was usually “Is that all? Huh…I thought there would be answers.” The last few years has felt like an episode of this television show, in search of the mysterious phenomena that is our own charity’s voice.

Supporting half a million people a year who come from all walks of life across public services means we do not have a typical beneficiary. Not having a typical beneficiary means the first rule of finding your charity’s voice is difficult, and our diverse audience can be difficult to pin down. Finding our voice and personality as a charity has been incredibly important for us. Often, within the independent advocacy sector, colleagues speak in a ‘technical jargon’ voice which alienates and confuses people from outside of the profession. That voice is okay for a legal or human rights fluent professional audience – but not effective in engaging with the general public. Simplicity has been a crucial factor when trying to raise awareness of rights and entitlements, galvanising support for our campaigns, changing “hearts and minds” and public attitudes, and growing our reach to the people our charity supports. The strategy was to find the beneficiary information gap, and then produce relevant digital content which served that audience. Testing and learning, simplifying storytelling and diversifying content was effective in finding what worked. We quickly learnt much of our digital audience lived with impairment or disability, so we set about to ensure our content was accessible, so our voice could be understood by as many people as possible. Easy read, plain English, videos with captions, image tagging for those using screen readers, high contrast fonts, and multiple languages all became part of delivering our voice to our audience. Plus, our face-to-face community events enabled us to reach the digitally excluded in local communities, and cascade information through colleagues amplifying our message.

A charity will make many strategic choices when it comes to their voice. Some charities will choose a neutral voice focused solely on services – only describing what they do. For others, public benefit is delivered through a campaigning voice. For example, some charities might take on a tone of “moral outrage” in their campaigning. and be perceived as a “bit shouty”, while others may choose an educational “did you know” style. There may be choices in external engagement about whether to be critical of the government in policy making decisions, whether to form coalitions with other charities of aligned goals, similar voice or tone and making sure the authentic voice of our beneficiaries comes through loud and clear. You might also do both, choosing a different tone of voice for campaigning compared with how you might communicate with stakeholders such as funders or staff. This ‘tone’ of voice can be just as important as the ‘voice’ itself.

Ultimately, the tone of voice needs to be memorable and effective so you get your message across. But what else goes into it? And why is finding your charity’s voice so fundamental to a successful operation? On my arrival at POhWER in 2020, I ran a series of workshops trying to identify what the charity’s unique personality actually was, not what it was perceived to be. What I found was that human rights and social justice was at the heart of our charity, supporting people to empower themselves through advocacy. The internal viewpoints on tactics and tone varied vastly, and consensus was harder to reach. “Too serious”, “not serious enough”, “too vague”, “boring”, “you can’t say that”, and dozens of other opinions were given on the “right tone” to adopt.

We found our aspirations on delivering voice were often larger than our available budgets, or skills and experience within the organisation. How easy it is to covet that other charity’s branding, marketing, digital film, website, public speaking footprint, media impact, and reach of their voice without considering that their budgets might be much greater than your own. We delivered our newfound voice on a shoestring budget, sometimes “punching above our weight”, but we did it. Our growing voice has sometimes attracted unwanted trolling and dissenting voices we could not control. Criticism of your charity’s voice can feel hurtful, as if your own personality is being attacked. I imagine other charities who have those amazing resources face even bigger challenges with trolling and expressing their voice.

How to keep it legal and aligned to Charity Commission guidance is the subject of much debate in Boardrooms and Senior Leadership Team meetings. Over the last few years, the sector’s regulator has been outspoken in its criticism of charities using their voice to influence policy making and politics. Why is there a national debate asking whether critical or strong opinions are okay for charities who are delivering public benefit? Is a courageous or controversial charity voice sometimes confused with “being political”? The Charity Commission’s latest guidance supports charities’ gift to use their voice to campaign and influence. The Commission’s Chair, Orlando Fraser, helpfully set clear regulatory expectations in 2022 stating that “charities are free to campaign and engage in political activity in this way, shining a light on uncomfortable truths, engaging with those in power in the interests of the people and causes they serve”.

However, with a general election ahead of us there remain restrictions on charities on what we can say heading into an important political period. In these polarising times, often the line between a personal opinion and that of a charity’s can be blurred. Your colleagues might even criticise the voice, claiming it isn’t courageous enough, or representative of what they personally want the charity to speak up about. In 2021 we implemented an external engagement policy, which became a necessity once we realised that our employee voices online did not always align to our charity’s voice or values. We have asked colleagues working in the charity who wish to speak without restriction to not include associations with the charity on social media, so no one may be confused about whose voice is speaking. The new external engagement policy has set fair boundaries, given choices to people on social media, and ensured we meet the Charity Commission’s expectations. I often receive requests for the charity to use its voice to campaign for causes not at all related to our own objects or public benefit – such as climate change, animal welfare, trade unions, or saving the green belt. It isn’t that I am personally not empathetic to these important causes, but that I am clear about my line between personal and professional opinions, and what lane and position our charity sits within. All essential to staying compliant. Checks and balances in the charity are necessary to make sure the voice remains data-led, informed, aligned, inclusive, and warm.

Like one of those unsatisfactory “In Search of” episodes, I still have not cracked the mysterious phenomena of the charity voice, but continue to search on the horizon. I hope to decipher the complex secrets of charity voice one day. I sense that as long as charitable objects, beneficiaries, and public benefit are at the heart of that voice – much may be forgiven.

Helen Moulinos is chief executive of a national advocacy charity fighting to have people’s human rights upheld and voices heard since 1996, called POhWER (aka people of here want equal rights). Helen is a board trustee for Amnesty International UK and a board trustee for the Civil Liberties Trust which works closely with Liberty.

Follow Helen on Twitter: @helenmoulinos

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