When you engage in public relations as a non-profit organization, every move must be strategic and thoughtful. The road to visibility can be long and arduous, and there is nothing more important than your integrity and your reputation. For more than three decades, we have been providing counsel and service to organizations and public figures in the Christian and non-profit sectors. We’ll unfold ten things we’ve learned.
#4 Be Authentic
Public confidence in charitable organizations is vital to assuring vibrant future for the work these groups do to address the world’s most important problems. The primary challenge of the public relations function that supports these organizations is not to spread information or to trick the public, but to encourage integrity and fortify the resulting good reputation.
That’s why I hate when people (including some in the profession) call public relations work “spin,” which gives the impression that PR practitioners are an impediment to the truth, rather than advocates and purveyors of truthfulness. (Of course, some are not. There are unprofessional clods in every profession.)
Unfortunately, public confidence in charities remains at contemporary lows. A March 2008 survey conducted by Brookings shows:
1. Charitable confidence has not risen significantly since it hit bottom in 2003. As of September 2002, 37 percent of Americans reported having “not too much” confidence in charitable organizations or “none at all.” As of March 2008, 34 percent gave the same rating.
2. Americans remain skeptical of charitable performance. Only 10 percent of the Americans interviewed in March 2003 said charitable organizations did a “very good job” spending money wisely; 17 percent gave the same rating to running programs and services, and being fair in decisions; and 25 percent gave the same rating to helping people.
3. The considerable drop in the ratings of helping people poses a serious challenge to the sector’s distinctiveness as a destination for giving and volunteering. As of October 2003, 34 percent of Americans said charitable organizations did “very good” in helping people; in March 2008, only 25 percent gave that same rating. This statistically significant drop is the most troubling finding in the survey.
4. Estimates of charitable waste remain disturbingly high. As of March 2008, 70 percent of Americans said that charitable organizations waste “a great deal” or “fair amount” of money. This figure has risen 10 percentage points since October 2003. Although Americans estimate that big business and government waste even more money, charitable organizations seem bound and determined to catch up.
Confidence in organizations must start with good governance. The public relations team can contribute by supporting the following:
• Be authentic in your characterizations of problems and your ability to address them.
• Encourage investment in performance, to be sure you can do what you want to do and say you will do.
• Match or exceed promises with performance—under-promise, over-deliver.
• Use realistic and common sense language rather than just flowery and visionary language in describing what you will accomplish.
• Don’t spin. That’s not the job of public relations, despite the way it is often characterized.
Reputation influences all the goals you set—gaining access for your programs, capturing both the attention and loyalty of donors, attracting and retaining the best employees, and finding strong program partners. Reputation also is a critical factor in how well you can weather a crisis.
While this may seem obvious to some, the best way to maintain a good reputation is to be authentic in your programs, public statements, fundraising, and financial practice. Tell the truth. Don’t present your organization as more than it is, and don’t try to be more than you can support with quality.