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07 April 2014

Monday 7 April 2014

Did you know someone who did a #nomakeupselfie? Or perhaps you did one yourself, and helped raise awareness – and over £8 million – for Cancer Research UK.

A number of my friends took part, and the campaign was hard to miss for anyone using social media over the past fortnight. And so a couple of weeks ago the Guardian Voluntary Sector Network tweeted a blog from a UK Editor of Buzzfeed asking why the campaign was such a success.

As someone who is probably yet to make the most of Twitter I don't often click through on articles that are tweeted to me. However, on the morning that particular blog was published, I was meeting with my Senior Team colleagues to look in some detail at London Youth's future plans and aspirations around Communications, so the timing felt too good to miss.

The blog’s argument was broadly that #nomakeupselfie was a success because it was spontaneous; it captured a very current trend – the selfie – and gave it a veneer of depth it had patently been lacking; and of course because of the money it raised.

The judgment that it was successful sounds compelling, but why and how communications is judged a success raised some important strategic questions for us.

As we talked, it felt to us like we are working with a spectrum: at one end, some charities approach their communications almost exclusively to raise funds – and so to sustain, scale up or innovate around their operations. At the other end, organisations use communications primarily to drive system change – so to influence policy or practice to create longer term change.

It is clearly too simple to say that any charity is exclusively at one end or the other: those organisations that focus on long-term system change will of course want and need to raise unrestricted income. But to us it felt that most organisations we could think of were more inclined to focus on one approach or the other. In this context, for all its undoubted awareness-raising, #nomakeupselfie was in truth a highly successful and pretty pure example of communications delivered solely with the 'fundraising' objective in mind.

We then thought about London Youth and how we used our small but evolving communications capacity, and where we would like it to focus. Our instinctive reaction was that we are about systemic change. We run two programmes aimed at helping young people who face major barriers to employment – Talent Match London and Build-it. In different ways, these both offer young people intensive and sustained support to access the opportunities to learn skills and in the long term build productive and fulfilling careers. But since these programmes are focused on learning about what works, and can only in themselves make a limited impact on the numbers of young unemployed, our communications around them must be aimed at effecting long term change – within Jobcentre Plus, across employers and through policy – rather than aimed at helping sustain or scale the programmes themselves.

With some of our other work, though, while we want and need systemic change, we actually do have a need for scaling programmes. For example, an essential way to engage young people in sport is to deliver it in community youth club settings. Over the past five years we've proved this is the case and now Sport England, the London Mayor and many sports' national governing bodies all buy this argument and support us to deliver in those settings. Similarly at our two outdoor education centres we deliver life changing opportunities for young people to learn, to challenge themselves and have fun in the countryside.

In both these cases, it is important that we provide more opportunities for young Londoners that they might not otherwise have; and that we increase our learning about what works and our understanding of the long-term positive impact it has. So for these programmes we communications that have a strong focus on generating ‘fundraising outcomes’ – that is money! – to sustain and build our operations in these areas.

But communicating at both ends of the spectrum creates some challenges. I’ve worked in organisations before when there has been genuine tension between fundraisers and policy or programme staff. The idea of communicating or ‘campaigning’ in order to solve a problem – so that ultimately there is no need for the charity any more – is what motivates many of us in the voluntary sector. But the drive to generate funds and sustain and scale services is also a very powerful force, although it is one that without care can risk straying into a narrative around dependency which may then become a barrier to achieving long term change.

At London Youth we need to keep working on our narrative, so that we can make it compelling enough to persuade funders to invest in our programmes, while not losing the clarity of the arguments for longer term change.

Reduced to this conclusion, it feels a tiny bit like we are stating the obvious. But actually it felt refreshing to be having the discussion, challenging ourselves around this area of our strategy in new ways, and really testing what we mean when we talk about the 'impact' or success of our communications.

So to the money raised for cancer research and awareness raising and innovation of the #nomakeupselfie campaign, perhaps we can add another positive outcome: that it made London Youth think differently about communications.

You can follow Jim on twitter @JimMinton_LY.

You can read the full article from Luke Lewis, UK Editor of BuzzFeed here:

http://www.theguardian.com/voluntary-sector-network/2014/mar/25/nomakeupselfie-viral-campaign-cancer-research