Same but different: Qualitative Research with Charities

Posted On: 08/1/19

By: Darren Harvey   


Audience insight projects with charities (not-for-profits) can be extremely rewarding for qualitative researchers: the content is usually rich and deeply human, clients are usually highly engaged and supportive, and there is a real sense that the insights gained are helping make a difference to people’s lives.

However, the research process is often more complicated and demanding than in commercial projects. Here are some golden rules for conducting highly effective qualitative research with charities.

Multiple stakeholders – when researching fundraising ideas and communications with supporters and potential supporters, be aware that their feedback is only part of the picture. Other stakeholders involved with the charity (beneficiaries, staff, volunteers and corporate partners, for example) are likely to have strong views but may not be part of the official decision-making team. To avoid problems further down the line, try to involve as many of these groups as possible in the qualitative fieldwork – they are often very keen to take part, so are easy to recruit and a pleasure to interview. This will help deliver insights which take into account all of the voices that matter.

Manage guilt – charity supporters and potential supporters are driven by a variety of emotions when they consider giving their money and time – compassion, pity, anger and duty all play a part. The ‘elephant in the room’, however, is guilt – from potential supporters who feel bad that they aren’t giving at all; and from current supporters who feel they should be giving more. Unfortunately this sense of guilt manifests itself in lots of unhelpful ways – for example blaming governments, passing the buck, or becoming defensive or judgmental. The best way round this is to set up the discussion in a depersonalised way – to reassure participants that the research is designed to explore issues, not to coerce them into support – and to fully explore the issues facing the charity with your participants before testing any fundraising ideas.

Steer clear of toxic myths around the category – unfortunately a number of unhelpful myths have sprung up around the charitable sector – of widespread corruption, overpaid senior staff, mismanaged funds, and so on. Years ago these criticisms were only levelled at international development charities, but recently home-grown charities are coming under increasing fire. But in many cases these accusations are flimsy – driven by cynicism, personal guilt, or lack of imagination. Be confident in refuting these accusations within your research sessions (and ask your client for some positive supporting statistics if necessary), or ask participants to save them until the end of the discussion.

Prioritise content over channel – when exploring fundraising and comms with members of the public, two issues are raised time and time again: aggressive fundraising (especially on-street) and pushy requests for increased support (by post, email or telephone). Negative feedback on these techniques can easily railroad a research discussion and draw focus away from the issues being researched. Furthermore, feedback on comms channels can also be deeply misleading (for instance, most people claim to throw away hard copy direct mail but to read fundraising emails, when in fact the reverse is often true). The moral of the story? Don’t discuss fundraising channels in qualitative research: instead use the time available to gain creative, open, constructive feedback on the content that you are testing.

Propositions – charities often script their fundraising propositions as a corporate would: with insights, benefits, reasons to believe and calls to action. Fundamentally this is fine, but there are two pitfalls to be avoided here.

  • The first is using sales-speak, implying that support for a charity is a commercial transaction (what’s in it for me / what’s in it for you) – which doesn’t allow audiences to access their emotions and often drives a cynical response. Try to work with clients to create conversational, emotionally-led content – ideally using narrative rather than the language of marketing.
  • The second is including the call to action in the main concept: this immediately triggers a sense of expectation and guilt which can kill positive discussion around the rest of the concept. Instead, introduce the client’s concepts as ‘ideas to kick around’, and cover the call to action separately, and in a depersonalised manner (e.g. not “would you do this?” but “what would happen if the charity asked for this”?)

All this requires is a slight shift of focus to the techniques we use in commercial research. Bear in mind these golden rules, and your charity clients will thank you for it!