Wednesday, 4 February 2009

When is it ok to laugh about cancer?

Before we begin, I think it's best that I mention that I work for a cancer charity so I'm allowed to question these things. And, that for the majority of the time, it is not cool to laugh at cancer. Now that's out of the way we can begin.

One of the things I find perplexing about the internal structure of the third sector is that the people within it have a complete inability to laugh at themselves. Now, I am fully aware of the importance of taking what you do seriously, especially if you work with sick / disabled / homeless / otherwise disadvantaged people... BUT my thought on this subject is that we reach a point when this earnest-ness can become a disadvantage. A yoke of worthiness which limits our creativity and business savvy.

Working in corporate fundraising, specifically, means I am lucky to see how the big bad corporates make their money. It seems a healthy touch of cynicism goes a long way. Recognising that some ideas are just... shit... is also important, and something charities are appalling at when it comes to thinking of new ways to fundraise. Breakthrough Breast Cancers 'Strawberry Tea' anyone? I know I'm setting myself up for a lashing here, but its just so.... naff. and unoriginal. An for most of these things, the marketing materials are terrible!

Obviously we can't just run about taking the piss out of people with cancer, but for God's sake, sometimes I could just headbutt the table in meetings when we're all talking about the significance of a particular phrase or acronym rather than how to make our charity better at doing its job, or recognising that mascots are hilarious and a bit embarrassing.... or that getting up at 6am to talk to a bunch of employees at the local granny salon is a bit unrewarding but something that needs to be done...

I take another example in naming an event we're starting this year. It's being held on Brick Lane. Apparently 'Brickin It' was too risque for us. If it was for a bunch of pensioners to do some flower arranging then I do totally get it, but this is for 20 somethings to listen to music and get pissed. Taking ourselves too seriously means we run the risk of losing our credibility in a new field.

Brand messaging is MASSIVELY important, but I wonder at what point it is that you're so scared of your viewpoint standing out, that you end up standing for nothing? The most successful brands arent the ones who want to appeal to everyone. They want to appeal to the right people - take Pimm's. it's a really silly advertising campaign, but perfect for the sort of pompous Britishness certain groups secretly love to indulge in during the summer.Or Cheesestrings. We know they're not for kids, every adult I know loves them! The campaign is totally inpenetrable and alienating and, therefore, fabulous in my mind.

I know charities must reach all that need them, so with regards to information and services and campaigns, be as high minded as you like. But to make money, we must behave like a business. We must play to our strengths. And we really must remind ourselves not to sound like we're preaching, guilt tripping on standing on our soap box. Do you think Innocent sold as many pointless bottles of squished fruit as they have by making people feel bad? I don't think so.

I fear this is becoming a pointless post. I am posing more of a question than a viewpoint on this. So - I wonder whether the deep seated self-belief and earnestness with which charities operate actually causes them harm?

I certainly feel that the commercial savvy of third sector companies is compromised by a refusal to accept that to be a success amongst corporate brands, we must learn not to take ourselves so seriously.