Preaching to the unconverted

By 9 December 2009

NPC meets with lots of charities who try to change people’s attitudes and behaviour, from organisations trying to improve public attitudes to asylum seekers, to those trying to encourage people to live healthier lives.Influencing people’s attitudes and behaviours is difficult. I think that many charities fail by talking in the wrong language, to the wrong people: charity campaigns are often written by and therefore subconsciously aimed at educated, middle-class, liberal people who care about things like poverty and giving to charity. This is all well and good, but it means that large swathes of the population either don’t listen to your message, or may even be turned off by it.

I’ve come across two charities recently that have worked hard not to fall into this trap.

National Literacy Trust understands that its work (getting more people into reading) isn’t immediately appealing, especially to the very people it is trying to influence—such as families from low-income households who don’t read with their kids. It realised that it had to reach out beyond its core audience of literacy professionals, who are mostly teachers and librarians.

It undertook some market research about its target audience. It realised that while charities and government often struggle to engage with such people, companies do not. Therefore the Trust teamed up with brands who are well-known among the target market, such as Iceland and Haven Holidays. For example, staff at Haven Holidays sites ran fun reading activities with families, and parents could pick up free children’s books at Iceland. Surveys have shown that this kind of work has made a difference: eg, 20% of parents from low-income households now read to their child, up from 15% before the work began.

Global Cool* works on climate change, and also uses extensive market research to work out how to get people to save carbon – eg, by taking the bus rather than driving; holidaying by train rather than by car; keeping the heating low. It found that the quickest way to ignite changes in consumer behaviour is to target people interested in going out, having a great time, looking fabulous. So it uses glamour, celebrities, social networks and media which reach those people. Global Cool tries to make carbon-saving cool and fun, rather than about hairshirts and being boring. Shouting at people to unplug mobile phone chargers won’t get you very far; Global Cool thinks it’s better to show fashion-conscious young people how to look great in Winter knits and how they can burn calories (not money) by turning down the heating.

I’m impressed by both organisations’ approaches, and would urge charities with similar missions to take a closer look at them. And I’d be interested in hearing from others who have had success in having an influence beyond the usual Guardian-reading liberals.

*Chronyism alert: It’s run by a former NPCer, Caroline Fiennes.