whatcharity partnered with Doris Dippold, Senior Lecturer in Intercultural Communication at the University of Surrey, to learn more about the communication challenges charities face with clients and key stakeholders.  This collaboration is part of the educational mission of whatCharity.

A good number of the whatCharity community partook in a survey and all of the respondents were invited to a free online communication course which will be held in Autumn 2019. This course is provided by the University of Surrey and it offers a FutureLearn diploma for all participants.

Our survey shows charities consider face-to-face communication with beneficiaries, volunteers, donors, and corporate partners as a key success factor for their work, with 64% of respondents describing it as ‘absolutely essential’ and 27% as ‘very important’.

For example, one charity mentioned their work with teachers in which effective, and sensitive face-to-face conversations were essential to achieve the desired outcomes.

This includes flexibly adapting and changing communication strategies to achieve the desired goals:

“Children still being beaten by the teachers, teacher training/discussion on what other strategies they can use. Research other ways to address this issue and go back and give follow up ideas.”

The charities who took part in the survey found that differences in the social & educational background were particularly challenging, leading to projects failing and money being wasted:

“We are a village hall charity. We subsidised a group wanting to run regular bingo nights for social cohesion and to raise money for local causes. We helped them the first night with advertising and they got a huge crowd. However, they mismanaged the budget and barely broke even. We said we would subsidise a second evening but in the event they did not let us assist and coach them with the budgeting and marketing and the attendance was very low. They then gave up. The cultural and educational divide was too great: they knew about bingo and could speak the language of local people who would enjoy it – we knew how to run events – together we should have been dynamite but in the end it was a waste of everyone’s time and nothing was raised for the local causes.”

The necessity to adapt the language used to the audience was mentioned particularly frequently by the charities who responded to the survey. This includes, for example, short sentences, simple language, and the avoidance of jargon

“Changing content that appeals to beneficiaries who may not understand the high level of jargon attached to the work that we do”.

Language difficulties can lead to difficulties in establishing common ground and in establishing relationships with donors and supporters, in particular when stakeholders have different don’t share the same beliefs:

“A lot of our work focusses out in China & Vietnam, where cultural backgrounds are very different. Particularly surrounding animal cruelty. We often have to explain to angry and frustrated UK supporters about the difference in Western & Asian cultures and the reasons behind this. A way to explain this in a clear, concise and polite way would be helpful for our supporters. We also get angry supporters who complain in other languages and replying via Google Translate can sometimes make us appear less caring than we wish to come across.”

The way language is used can make a real difference to the outcomes for the charity. Charities, therefore, need to plan carefully to prevent and overcome communication challenges. The use of Google Translate was frequently mentioned as an aid to facilitating communication, as was the use of gestures, social media, or linguistic and cultural mediators:

“Some of our partners in Tanzania, where we operate, speak mostly Swahili and only a little English. When I asked directly about an issue one of them gave me the answer they knew would please me and not the further explanation necessary. This was probably due both to limited English and cultural norms. As we have an Operations Director who speaks both English and Swahili, he explained the situation to me later in full. This was satisfactory and has taught me that I need to be more aware of this possibility.”

It is important to note that language difficulties can also be of an inter-generational nature. Generally, charities emphasized the importance of planning for and reflecting on communication challenges. One respondent, for example, reports on one instance as:

“Cultural issue, researched and tried to ensure no boundaries were overstepped.”

Our survey emphasizes that good communication is a key success factor for charities and that it can pay to invest in planning how to best approach situations, in particular, if they are potentially tricky.

Based on the findings from this survey, Doris Dippold has developed a FutureLearn course which will support charities in developing skills for planning and reflection. Entitled “Communicating with Diverse Audiences”, the course helps participants recognise and deal with biases caused by differences in their communication practices, develops their strategies for using English effectively as means of communication between speakers of different backgrounds, and discusses how language can be used to maintain and create interpersonal rapport.  The course is self-taught over a period four weeks with and students will receive a certificate of participation from FutureLearn.