CRUK embraces transparency as largest fundraiser flags

Whatever you think of the evidently significant marketing spend injected (and it’s unclear how much of this has been donated or subsidised) Cancer Research UK’s high visibility, multi platform campaign – essentially saying ‘we’re in trouble’ – is a brave and transparent move for a charity of its stature and a series of races that equate to the UK’s largest women-only fundraising event.

Perhaps sensing there could be difficulty in this economically strained climate as early as February, sponsor of 10 years Tesco ran its first high profile TV ad campaign for Race for Life; pledging to help recruit 1 million women – including 20,000 of its own staff – to the flagship fundraiser.

But a few weeks ago, the nations largest cancer charity unleashed a set of adverts – most notably on TV featuring Gloria Hunniford (who lost her daughter Caron Keating to cancer in 2004) – into the public sphere; declaring; “this year there’s a problem. We’re really down on women.”

Ignoring the awkward grammar of the call to action, the campaign message is the unspoken concern that rarely makes it into external communications; the admission of struggle – of ‘failure’.

Of course, no one could accuse Cancer Research UK of ‘failure’ (I have previously accused them of iconography theft, but that’s another subject); but rather they are experiencing public charity fatigue on a very large scale because of the organisational enormity (but twinned localism) of Race for Life.

We are witnessing the blown up, exposed, struggle for participation that smaller charities are suffering on a macro-level. And that appears to be (who knew?) that it’s incredibly difficult to fundraise in a climate of economic uncertainty, and political confusion.

While it’s vital to keep telling our stories in vivid and emotive ways to garner public support (for example I love Missing People’s new blog of heart-wrenching family accounts), it’s frightening to see Race for Life in trouble; simply because it is so iconic and because cancer unquestionably touches so many of our lives.

I wish Cancer Research UK good luck, and hope that they don’t have to merge or cancel many individual events. If their path of transparent ‘desperation’ or ’emergency’ – ordinarily the narrative of emergency disaster appeals – works, it could change the way many charities market and fundraise.

It is up to us as individuals, potential sponsors, fundraisers, volunteers (and let’s face it, users) whether we  rise to this call for help. This time, next time, or ever.

Update: there is one sticking caveat which readers of this post have pointed out on Twitter, which is only in April did CRUK announce a record annual income of £500m for the previous financial year.

I understand that different events and activity are budgeted against, and one income stream over here doesn’t mean it can be used over there…But it does become part of the narrative of communicating emergency, and how canny members of the public interpret Appeals in wider context.

15 thoughts on “CRUK embraces transparency as largest fundraiser flags

  1. The transparency is really refreshing but I can’t help having a nagging cynical question about whether this is mostly a marketing tactic. I’d really love to hear more from anyone at CRUK. I’d be happy if the pessimistic side of my brain was proved wrong on this one – I’m really keen to see transparency win through.

  2. Ooh you cynic, Spirals! 😉 I don’t know – I see that Tesco has stumped up deadlined sign-up incentives like a ‘years supply of Tesco shopping’ (you can just about make them out in the picture of The Metro ad in the the post). I smell genuine desperation, and kind of feel everything is being thrown at this to make it a success…because there is a lot at stake.

    *unusual for me not to be cynical*

  3. Interesting… and, indeed, not something that many charities are keen to do normally (although much more often seen in communications to existing donors than in the public domain like this).

    Any chance of adding the copy from the ad – that can’t be read on the pic in your post – key messages, I mean? I think I’d need to see those to take a more informed guess at whether this is transparency or just a marketing tactic.

    My guess would be that there is some truth in it, but that it’s an angle on the truth. The reason I’d like to see the copy is to understand just how transparent CRUK is being. For example, being open about how low on numbers they are this year compared to last year/normal, what the impact on their fundraising income will be, and the impact on research they fund etc. would be really transparent. However, if it’s just the case that they are down against target, particularly if that target projected for ambitious growth that hasn’t been possible due to saturation/fatigue of the market, and reserves are such that there won’t be any material impact on research budgets, then supporters might take a different view of the transparency. But the way it looks from here – without being able to read the detail – is that it suggests transparency without actually sharing much, which would make it a rather simplistic marketing tactic.

  4. An appeal to all women in London

    Ladies, right now we have a problem – we’re significantly down on the number of women who’ve signed up.

    Less women means less research, which means less lives saved in the future

    We urgently need you to join the girls at a Race for Life – you can even walk it in less than an hour.

    Neil McAndrew – Race for Life supporter

  5. I saw this last night on tube poster in my average commuter mode (ie tired & not really paying attention). I skimmed it and assumed it was just part of the standard recruitment campaign.

    I’m not sure that a typical person would see it as particularly transparent. They would probably assume it was a tactic – people are used to this sort of stuff by now. Perhaps the sector has created a rod for its own back having cried wolf before?

    On a personal level, I wanted to support CRUK this year and went on to R4L to register and run but was put off by what felt like an overly commercial approach. Does it now look so big that people feel they are not needed to make a difference? A search on my postcode reveals 17 races to enter.

  6. Here’s an idea CRUK… how about you review your decision to exclude men from the event? In 2011, I still think it’s crazy to turn away this much support. Just saying.

  7. I commend CRUK for being transparent. It is a risky strategy, as the message isn’t exactly positive, but we are all living in very challenging times. Recently my charity was hit by a hefty funding cut from the Office for Civil Society leaving us in pretty dire straits financially. Up until that point we had been reluctant to criticise the hand that fed us. After the cut we decided to take the gloves off and give this Gov department a piece of our mind about why they were discontinuing support to a charity that was delivering their so-called Big Society. Our message was enthusiastically taken up by the left of centre media and the opposition all resulting in parliamentary debates and a one to one meeting the minister. Colleagues in the sector also praised us for our bold approach. We’ve yet to see any money come in as a result but we brought the whole debate about the BS under the microscope for a few days at least.

  8. It’s really interesting to see the debate here about our appeal campaign for Race for Life. We took the decision to be bold in our messaging as this year the charity is significantly down on numbers for our Race for Life fundraising event series and we urgently need more women to sign up to an event near them now. If we compare our participation figures to last year we are 15 per cent down on where we were. As Race for Life is one of our biggest fundraising streams, this shortfall could represent a large amount of money to the charity.

  9. Really interesting debate….I must say I was very surprised, and intrigued, to see the ad in my weekly glossy. One question for Jo at Cancer Research UK…since the ads (both print and tv), have you noticed a significant increase in registrations now? A thought….perhaps the money spent on the advertising campaign to recruit more women could have been spent on nurturing the ones already signed up to encourage and inspire them to increase their fundraising efforts?

  10. We’re already starting to see a significant increase in registrations and we are hopeful that our activity will continue to see positive results over the coming weeks. We still have further activity planned. With regards to nurturing our current participants, we already carry out communications activity to encourage and inspire them to fundraise as much as possible for us.

    1. Thanks for taking the time to add a comment from CRUK’s Race for Life team, Jo. There’s clearly a lot of interest in how your campaign plays out, and I’m intrigued to see the further activity you’ve planned. I wonder if there has been any negative feedback from the decision to ‘go large’ with an appeal for more women.

      Perhaps further down the line your team might be interested in sharing your evaluation of the comms at a future event? 🙂

  11. Hi Rob

    Great piece of analysis and interesting debate.

    For me it’s simply a case of a fantastic event coming to the end of it’s product cycle. It’s had a great run and raised a massive amount of money, but I know a lot of people I know who have done it previously have said they’ve done that and are now looking for a new event to do i.e. Midnight Walks have increased massively in popularity, hence CRUK’s Shine Walks in response.

    I suspect CRUK are aware of this and know the event is at maturity and are doing everything they can to nurture their cash cow into retirement over the next decade…

    The emergency aspect of the appeal might work this year (although they also did something similar last year on a local level), but how many times can you cry wolf?


  12. Great article and comments. I wonder whether it’s just that the idea of running for charity is a bit old now? There’s a plethora of similar events throughout the year. Would be interested to hear if other such races are facing similar challenges. If so charities will simply have to get more creative to capture the public’s attention.

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