Why does your charity fund research?
It might seem like an easy question. But looking at a lot of medical research charities, I don’t see many good answers.
In this blog, we’ll look at why this question is worth thinking about, and how other charities have tried to answer it.
Why should we start with why?
To get to the bottom of this question, I invite you to watch this TEDx talk from Simon Sinek. If you haven’t seen it before, you could maybe watch the first 10 minutes, and come back.
If you’ve seen it, or can’t be bothered right now, here’s a summary. Simon’s theory is that great leaders, no matter whether it’s in business, innovation, or cultural movements, all behave in the same way – everything they do, think and say has their purpose at the heart.
One of the examples Simon uses is Apple. He says that Apple does not appeal to their customers based upon their ‘What’ (computers, phones, tablets and so on), or their ‘How’, (their design principles). Instead, they sell their mission, their ‘Why’. For Apple, this is some version of one of their classic advertising slogans – “think differently”.
Leading with ‘Why’ is a much more powerful way to connect with people – be they customers, staff, supporters, followers, or whoever. Simon proposes that the ‘Why’ taps into an emotional, primal part of the brain which logic and rational facts can’t reach.
What’s your why?
For charities, the idea of “Starting With Why” is nothing new. One of the many things I love about working with charities is that every organisation has its purpose, the ‘Why’ at heart.
Working in a charity, we might intuitively know what our ‘Why’ is. But I don’t often see it being said out loud.
This is particularly true for medical research charities. If asked about why they fund research, some charities might say: “to make people’s lives better”. Or maybe: “to fund research to bring about cures for ___”.
These are good and noble aims, but personally, I don’t they’re good enough ‘Whys’.
Let’s take “make people’s lives better”, for example. There are so many health charities that do amazing work, aside from research. Support groups. Phone lines. Respite care. Holidays for critically-ill children. Specialist nursing. Pamper boxes. Dogs that help diabetics control their blood sugar. First aid training. Hospital accommodation for families. Bone marrow donor matching. One-to-one peer support. End of life care.
All these charities could rightly say they “make people’s lives better”. And frankly, the difference they make is a lot quicker and a lot more direct than funding researchers.
Of course, though we talk a lot about competition in the charity sector, the choice for a donor is rarely as stark as ‘research vs. support’. But if it’s key that charities connect with people based upon their purpose, I think that all medical research charities need to have a good succinct answer to the question: “why should I support you?”.
We’ve established that answering the question “why should I support your charity?” is so important. But looking on the websites of a lot of medical research charities, I don’t see these answers.
Why not? Why don’t these charities have a good answer? I think there’s maybe three thought processes happening:
- Laziness: Everyone who works at the charity knows, deep down, why we fund research (we hope!) But we haven’t gotten around to writing it down in a succinct way, because there are so many other things to do and it doesn’t seem like a priority. Our supporters probably understand anyway, right? “We fund research” will do for now.
- Fear: Asking ourselves why our charity funds research might involve some soul-searching and produce some scary answers. We’ve invested a lot of money into research for a long time. Saying why we’ve done this might lead to us being called out on what tangible difference this has actually made to people’s lives. It’s far less scary just to say “we fund research”, and leave it at that.
- Arrogance: Listen – we’re a serious charity that funds serious research, by proper researchers who have degrees, and letters after their name. Of course, all that support-y let’s-talk-about-your-feelings stuff that other charities do is important, sure. But really, we know that the public knows that research is far more important. And we don’t need to explain that to anyone. “We fund research” is enough.
I know and you know your charity has a good answer to this question. Everyone connected to your charity – your supporters, your colleagues, volunteers and the public – deserve to know and understand your Why.
Examples of this in action
For me, a great answer comes in two parts.
- What is the problem you’re trying to solve; and
- Why is research the way to solve it?
The first part of your messaging will be relatively straightforward. Your charity will be acutely aware of the problems people face. You’ll have lots of individual stories to tell, and lots of statistics which will show the scale and the impact of the issue.
The second part is trickier. We’ve already discussed how there are lots of different ways to make people’s lives better. Research is a way to find new ways – new drugs, interventions, tests, medical devices, etc. But perhaps you need to explain why we need these new things. What is it that isn’t been achieved by the status quo?
Following are a few successful examples from other medical research charities:
Coeliac UK has a powerful description of their motivations in a research appeal:
“For the one in 100 people affected by coeliac disease, it can be hard to appreciate the impact coeliac disease can have on their lives. For many, it can be years of suffering before eventual diagnosis. For others, it can be ongoing health impacts long after diagnosis […]
Sadly, little has changed since the discovery of the link between coeliac disease and gluten over 60 years ago. Today, sticking to a gluten free diet is still the only treatment – but it doesn’t work for everyone. And as more disturbing new aspects of the disease emerge, it’s becoming critical to find answers through research.
We need to do something. Find a more permanent solution to a growing problem. But without research and understanding, the real problem – coeliac disease – isn’t going away anytime soon.”
Cystic Fibrosis Trust has their ‘Why’ on their research front page:
“…only half of those with cystic fibrosis will live to see their 47th birthday. […] We are one of the largest funders of research into cystic fibrosis in the UK, and people with the condition are now living longer and healthier lives than ever before.
As people with cystic fibrosis are living longer, complications such as CF-related diabetes and osteoporosis are becoming more prevalent, and there is more pressure on adult clinical services. We are therefore supporting greater investment in research projects and training clinicians to help people with cystic fibrosis live longer and healthier lives, unlimited by the condition.”
Tommy’s have a simple but powerful statement on their research pages:
“In the UK, it is estimated that 1 in 4 pregnancies end in loss during pregnancy or birth. 60,000 babies are born prematurely. We research causes and treatments so we can make pregnancy and birth safer for all.”
British Heart Foundation fund research not only into heart diseases but other circulatory diseases, such as vascular dementia – and on this page, they explain why:
“There’s no cure for vascular dementia. People with the condition can be prescribed drugs to help control their blood pressure, reduce clots and reduce their cholesterol levels if they are high, which can slow down the progression of the disease. But beyond this there’s nothing doctors can do, yet. We’re funding research that could change this, and bring hope to people affected by this disease.”
Diabetes UK has this statement in a research strategy document:
“One in 16 people in the UK, and one in seven of those in hospital now have diabetes – leaving the NHS scrambling to keep up. Diabetes costs the health service £10 billion every year – mostly just to deal with its consequences, which can include sight loss, limb amputation and kidney failure. Many of us now have family or friends with diabetes, but the UK is still failing to recognise the impact of diabetes and the urgent need for action.
“Research is our hope for the future. Everything we know about caring for diabetes is a result of research – and UK scientists have already contributed to life-changing breakthroughs. But research is expensive, and for every £1 the UK spends on caring for diabetes, it invests just half a penny on research. If we want to put an end to all forms of diabetes for good, that has to change.”
Yorkshire Cancer Research set out its regional focus clearly:
“In Yorkshire, you’re more likely to get cancer and more likely to die from it than almost anywhere else in England. Cancer is related to many things such as our genes and age. But it’s also affected by our lifestyle – not looking after ourselves properly, not eating right, not being active enough or making good choices for our health.
“Using research, we look more closely at these and other factors to find new and improved ways to help people improve their health and understand how they can have the best chance of avoiding cancer. We test new ways to find cancer early, how best to treat it and how to support people to ensure they have the best chance of surviving and coping with their cancer.
And The Guy’s & St Thomas’ Charity has a good statement about their purpose.
It’s written with a ‘philanthropy donor’ audience in mind, but still clearly gets across why they exist as a charity:
“Many of our resources were left to us with the instruction to treat ‘the incurable’ health challenges of people living in the London boroughs of Lambeth and Southwark.
“The nature of these challenges has changed over time. They are today as complex as they have ever been. They relate not only to people’s physical and mental health, but also to what people perceive a healthy life to be; not just to the absence of illness, but the ability to thrive. […]
“Lambeth and Southwark are extreme examples of inner-cities. Through our work, we’re learning that urban environment, diverse communities and deprived areas bring with them both assets and risk factors, which interact with each other in complex ways.
“We believe that understanding better the complex interaction between urban environment, diversity and deprivation can help us unlock innovative solutions to difficult health challenges.”
Why is this not on your research pages?
It took me a long time to find some of the examples above. Naively, I thought it would be easy to find them, but instead, statements like these seem hidden away, in research strategy pages, or PDF documents, or the ‘about us’ pages. Or maybe they appear once for one appeal, never to be seen again.
So, what is on the research pages? Often, the message is I get from these pages is: “we fund research, and it’s really great – here, see for yourself!”. That’s it.
You know why your charity funds research. You might even have a clear concise way of communicating it. Why not put it on your research front page?
Research is what your charity does. But it isn’t enough to expect people to intuitively understand why. Convince them of this, make them feel it, and they’ll do everything they can to help you.