Communicating Europe and the Charity Sector
It is no secret that the European Union has faced a major identity crisis over the last few years.
A number of back-to-back crises—from the recession, to refugees and the crescendo that is Brexit—have coincided with increasingly polarised global politics. As a result, the traditionally right wing “hard Euroscepticism” attitude has flourished across the continent. The Union has never faced such scrutiny, and yet it has never been so vital that European solidarity prevail in a world that is simultaneously becoming more globalised and more divided.
All of this is compounded by the digital age. The excess of choice and influx of information we consume on a daily basis has rendered us less trustful of the establishment, more impatient, and more demanding. Marketing and communications are now more important than ever to keep the public on side. However, it has been a steep and tense learning curve for the EU, and other institutions, that have never really had to consider how to “sell themselves” to the public before.
This is something with which Irish charities can identify. We have recently faced our own crisis in public confidence after years of poor regulation resulted in a number of high profile scandals. Organisations that had been the backbone of vulnerable communities for generations were suddenly being questioned on their value. Expectations in terms of transparency and accountability grew dramatically, without seemingly any understanding of the costs and capacity implicated in their provision. At the worst of it, public trust in charities dropped to an all-time low of 46%,[EM1] which had a significant impact on fundraising and therefore the ability of the sector to fulfil its vital role in communities. For so long, we relied on the misconception that the worth of the sector was self-evident and now, like the EU, we have had to adapt quickly and learn to place communicating impact at the core of our work.
The Union has launched many initiatives recently designed to better engage citizens. The “Reaching out to EU Citizens – seizing the opportunity” report published in November 2017 set out some of these plans and highlighted the need to engage civil society as both advocates and conduits for citizens. Outreach included the “Future of Europe” debate and consultation process, which saw a series of Citizens’ Dialogues take place throughout the continent. Some of you may have attended the one organised by The Wheel for the community and voluntary sector on behalf of Minister of State for European Affairs, Helen McEntee, in April this year. The Citizens’ Dialogue report and the results of many other citizen outreach projects will ultimately inform the role that Europe will play in our lives going forward, while other new initiatives—including a new website launched this month—aim to keep citizens better informed about what Europe does for them.
The charity sector has also welcomed regulation as necessary and overdue, and is learning to both defend and promote the vital role it plays in Irish society. An example of this is The Wheel’s Charity Impact Awards. They raise awareness of our sector’s positive impact and promote best practice by telling the stories of those who have dedicated their lives to improving our communities.
Despite the positive progress, there is no denying that the storms weathered of late have taken their toll. While it is only right that both the EU and the sector be held to an exceptionally high standard, it is easy to become discouraged by the relentless scrutiny and the overemphasis on what little negative there is in so much positive. So how do we stay motivated, especially in the face of what are sure to be even more trying times ahead, for both Europe and our sector?
Last week, I came across an interesting quote during our study trip to Brussels organised by the European Commission Representation Office in Ireland. Jean Monnet, one of the founding fathers of the European Union, said in his memoirs:
“Europe will be forged in crises, and will be the sum of the solutions adopted for those crises”.
I was struck by the optimism of this statement and how it could equally apply to our sector, which evolved to respond to the crises faced by communities and which has itself been shaped by its own crises. It can be so easy to focus on the negative, especially as we are bombarded with fatalistic and sensationalist social discourse on a daily basis. However, the fact remains that with each challenge comes an opportunity to improve and progress, to be hopeful in the face of cynicism, and united in the face of divisiveness. It is only through such reckless optimism that we can hope to achieve the only real goal we all have, which is not perfection, but a better world for the citizens and communities that we serve.