Challenging Third Sector stereotypes

By Alex Lewis

Controversial client comments are part and parcel of working in the creative industry. However, I was taken aback with recent feedback from a third sector organisation who said the creative ‘doesn’t look charity enough’. This opened up a long and complex discussion at Champion about what charity ‘should’ look like.

It’s not uncommon to visually stereotype third sector organisations; here lies the fundamental problem. Campaigns often rely heavily upon emotive aesthetics that are designed to guilt the viewer into action, yet years of exposure has left us desensitized to these images, when they should be deeply provoking. The visuals now blur into a disjointed message, which we easily detach ourselves from.

Agencies themselves can be guilty of producing creative work that acknowledges preconceptions. Third sector doesn’t need to look like third sector. What it does need is well designed communications that talk in a positive and proactive way as opposed to distressing or worthy visuals that we have become familiar with. Their briefs should be tackled like any other, with the aim to produce a bespoke creative answer for that individual client. Something that simply ‘fits the sector’ acts only to endorse and validate the stereotype.

We then have to consider the role of the client. It can sometimes be easy to push creative into a space they feel comfortable with. Unfortunately, this creates barriers for the growth of their organisation and in so doing, affects their scope for change. As many third sector organisations are started by people who have brilliant social missions but have limited financial resources, effective marketing and communications can fall down the list of priorities, leaving them with an identity that might not reflect the virtues of their brand.

Consumers also play a part. There is certainly something about a stereotypical third sector visual that we seem to trust. If these businesses look too good, will people become suspicious of where their funding is going? Equally, who’d give money to a cause that didn’t look legitimate?

We should exemplify companies like Belu, Cancer Research & The House of St. Barnabas who have applied great design and marketing to an ethical cause. We can also point to the likes of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge and Movember as examples of innovative third sector campaigns that have great design and ideas behind them that are engaging. The reoccurring theme that’s prevalent in these is fun. This element makes the causes more relatable, and also perpetuates positivity, rather than a feeling of guilt. Their engagement rates are sky high because of this change in focus. If there is a general shift in perception, where agencies, clients and consumers realise the massive opportunity for growth and improvement within the sector, the aesthetic stereotype has the potential to change dramatically.


By abolishing emotional links to guilt and replacing it with respect, a far more powerful emotion, we can potentially, help to bring about change in perception. There is no question that innovative brands deserve an image to match. We all need to be more ambitious when creating design for good causes. It’s going to take vision from the agency and bravery from the client to give ‘good’ brands the great creative they deserve. Let’s have fun while doing it.

Alex Lewis