The challenge of charity comms…

What do you think are the main communication challenges when working for a charity? Many assume that budget restrictions would be the toughest issue, with the perception that this would lead to less creativity (less ability to produce stuff) or more creativity (more pressure).

Alex Smith is Head of Communications at Target Ovarian Cancer, the national ovarian cancer charity. She has worked in both internal and external communications for a range of organisations, including Bupa, Virgin Media, Mencap, Britvic, Westpac Bank and General Electric. Here she writes for Diary of an internal communicator as part of my series of guest articles, to offer an insight into the world of charity comms. Thank you and over to you Alex…

The challenge of charity comms
Working in comms for a charity isn’t that different in terms of day-to-day tasks. My current priorities are a communications review, a website review and to write our annual report/review. We’re able to focus on the communication infrastructure as we know it’ll be a quiet month with the Olympics on. Recently we’ve revisited our key messages, and had some fantastic success with placing women with ovarian cancer in the media, supporting news of an awareness campaign.

Audience definition
For me, the most challenging aspect of charity comms is the audience overlap, and the difficulty of audience definition. Our priority audience is women with ovarian cancer. We also communicate with families and friends, journalists, parliamentarians, nurses, GPs, medical professionals, researchers and the public.

When we’re talking to MPs, journalists and opinion leaders, we talk about the shocking facts that the UK’s survival rates are amongst the lowest in Europe, about how there have been no new treatments developed in the past 20 years. When we’re talking to women who are newly diagnosed, we give them information, support, reassurance. But what about the MP who has ovarian cancer, or the journalist whose wife, daughter or mother has just been diagnosed? If we want donations from the public, we need to tell them that 12 women die every day from ovarian cancer, with a shocking 36 per cent survival rate. But one of our main audiences are members of the public who are experiencing symptoms of ovarian cancer, not yet diagnosed, for whom the low survival rates are terrifying.

Concentric circles
We don’t distinguish between internal and external comms, as we’re fortunate to have fantastic volunteer support from women with ovarian cancer, their families and friends, in fundraising, campaigning and awareness-raising. Without them, we wouldn’t be able to have as much impact, so I prefer to view our audiences as concentric circles, with those most involved (staff and women with ovarian cancer) at the centre.

Our staff communications should be simple, with only 14 full time employees, limited geographical variation and 100 per cent computer access, but the subject matter makes it complicated. If a woman has just found out her cancer has recurred (as it does with around 75 per cent of cases), the last thing she wants is someone from comms asking her if she’s up for being interviewed by the media, or someone from fundraising asking how she’s getting on with the event she was planning. We need to communicate quickly and sensitively.

Plus the low survival rates mean that sadly, many of the women we work very closely with, die from their cancer – a tough message for an office day, plus constant reminders when everything we do contains the voices of the women we work with– in photos, quotes, blogs and video content.

But back to the question around budgets and creativity, I have no issues. We have a solid business plan and clear objectives, based on comprehensive research into what the priority areas are for ovarian cancer. Every member of the team knows exactly what they need to do to contribute – and we get feedback from the people we impact on a daily basis, so I know I’m making a positive difference. And I’ve worked in many organisations, both corporate and voluntary, that do not have that clarity, even if they do have the budgets!

I’m taking part in the Walk for One Million to raise money for Target Ovarian Cancer. You can find out more about us via the website, follow on Twitter @TargetOvarian or find us on Facebook, Alex.

Thanks Alex for such an interesting and thought-provoking article. I was shocked by some of those stats! I found it particularly interesting to read that the charity doesn’t distinguish between internal and external comms. What did you think of what she wrote? Please feel free to comment below. If you have a topic you think other comms professionals would be interested in reading about, do check out my guest article guidelines and get in touch with your ideas and your post could be appearing here, Rachel.


  1. […] sector is vital and can have different considerations than in other sector. Sometimes, the messages are sensitive, and often there are volunteers to consider as well as your […]

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