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Digital marketing for federated charities: balancing localism and scale.

If you’re heading up a charity—any charity—you will be feeling the pressure right now. Competition is tough. The public is sceptical. There’s a stronger sense of general scrutiny: especially when it comes to donating hard-earned cash. Whether you are national, local, or federated, you probably don’t need reminding that you need to sharpen your marketing strategy.

No doubt you are aware, digital marketing is your channel to reach a wider audience. Yet, even with this knowledge, 96% of charities admit they are not utilising digital marketing effectively. With forward-thinking charities actively looking to remedy this, it is federated charities that face more challenges than most. Understanding the balance between localism and scale is important if federated charities want to achieve digital success.

What is a federated charity?

First, it’s important to look at the federated charity structure. To understand where this can offer advantages and identify where it presents risks.

As a federated charity you operate a national charity through registered, independent local branches. It’s a successful model. So successful, in fact, that it represents a significant proportion of the voluntary sector. Federations exist both within countries and across international borders and include some of the world’s’ largest profile charities such as:

While they may all be federated, each charity varies slightly in structure. The largest difference is the extent to which the governing body has control over the local organisations.

Less control, means local organisations may only share things like mission, vision, logo and the brand values. Each local organisation differs significantly; therefore so does their digital presence.

In contrast, a governing body with more control offers each local organisation a much more structured approach. They may have a shared methodology and approach to service provision, possibly with some organisational function that operates at a national level.

Understanding how to go forward means looking back at how you started.

Before we delve into what federated charities can do to improve their digital marketing, it’s important to understand why the charity originally federated.

  1. Your charity may have ‘split’ to serve a need – possibly to become more local and provide more tailored services.
  2. On the flip side, you may have been ‘formed’ from several separate organisations under a single brand identity (while still remaining separate legal entities).

Whether the motivation is to appear bigger, or more local, the structure provides many advantages. It gives you the autonomy to work independently and tailor services to local needs, without losing the ability to compete—and be governed—at a national, or even international level.

Federations marry the bottom-up approach that so many in the charity sector yearn for with the top-down structure they also need. Basically, a federated structure allows a charity to benefit from the ‘best of both worlds’:

  • At a local level, service provision can be more agile and flexible, responding to the needs of the local community. This high degree of autonomy means local organisations have the freedom to innovate, choosing how they serve their audiences. A local organisation can also get support from local volunteers and raise funds from local donors.
  • At a national level, a federated charity can benefit from its collective size and scale, advocating for, and building awareness of their mission, attracting major donors, and gaining support from key decision makers and influencers, such as government policy makers and even celebrity support.

It all sounds fairly logical doesn’t it? And from a geographical point of view, it is. But when we start to look at digital marketing and technology, federated charities can face a range of problems.

Common digital problems faced by federated charities.

With federated charities, there are very few digital ecosystems that look the same. They tend to fall into one of many different categories:

  • Each local organisation has its own website (sometimes multiple websites).
  • Each runs its own, separate social media accounts.
  • Each uses separate digital software for everything from fundraising and social media to scheduling and analytics.
  • Each pays for its own external agencies to assist with things like website design, development and maintenance, PR, SEO etc.
  • Each has separate marketing budgets.
  • Each has separate marketing teams, making their own tactical decisions. Those teams don’t collaborate or share data and insights with other marketing teams in the network.

As you can imagine, many different types of digital ecosystem come with myriad problems to navigate.

Confusion for your audiences.

Imagine a range of local organisations, each with their own websites and their own social media presence. At best, this is confusing. But at its worst, it can have a severe impact on the effectiveness of the charity and the funds raised.

Simply landing on the wrong website will send people the completely wrong signals. Not to mention the wrong information.

The same can be said for different, possibly conflicting, social media channels. The confusion intensifies further when someone accidentally donates to the ‘wrong’ local organisation. Or at a national instead of a local level. With targets to hit and so much riding on funds raised, this raises the inevitable question: where does that money go?

Inefficiencies and wasted spend.

Imagine a federated charity has 30 member organisations. Each has their own, separate marketing person, or team. They run separate campaigns on separate social media feeds. Not only is this costly, it’s incredibly inefficient.

Duplication of tasks, all at a local level, quickly adds up to a lot of wasted time and often less effective results.

And the inefficiencies don’t stop there. Marketing teams can directly, and quite unintentionally, waste money. When each member organisation spends independently on software subscriptions—or website hosting—the duplication of costs can really mount up. Trust us, we’ve seen it.

When shared spending can save so much, it really makes sense to invest in a bit of shared thinking.

Lack of coordination/lack of sharing of insights.

No matter how your federated charity began, it could likely benefit from better collaboration. Especially in marketing efforts.

Imagine the scenario. One marketing team lands an innovative marketing tactic. This delivers major cut-through, maybe increases fundraising significantly, or opens a new client service.

What do they do next? Do they share it with all other member organisations? Maybe they rely on their team leader or CEO to share it at the next national meeting, if they get time. In our experience, the other member organisations rarely hear about it. Deep insight gets lost, resulting in a massive waste of potential impact across the organisation.

Digital marketing performance issues.

Social media—really good social media—takes time. It requires planning, responding, being aware, and involved in the conversations. Similarly, websites need updating regularly to stay relevant. Both of these present issues to federated charities.

When each member organisation has its own website and social media accounts, it is almost impossible to have significant impact. Resources are stretched. Lack of updates result in a drop in search engine rankings. Social media accounts don’t have a consistent approach, which means they don’t get the engagement or followers they need to be truly effective. This affects the algorithms, which results in lower visibility. And the cycle continues.

How forward thinking federated charities can improve their digital marketing.

So how do federated charities overcome these problems? Here are 3 working structures to consider:

1. Centralise marketing at a national level.

The federated model makes sense, because the charity can provide tailored service provision at a local level. But digital has no physical boundaries. To achieve maximum impact, promotions can run at a national level. After all, one of the core benefits of a federated structure is national leverage. As marketing needs to be closely connected with brand, it makes little sense to have separate marketing teams. But what about the local ‘feel’, I hear you cry. Well, centralising doesn’t need to take away from this. It simply means you will be working as a national initiative, supported by local intelligence. Not the other way around.

We understand, however, that’s not always possible, so another option could be…

2. Develop a ‘single front door’ that local marketing teams can contribute to.

Local marketing teams can still exist. Politically, and operationally, you may need this to be the case. But this doesn’t mean they need to manage their own digital assets.

It’s entirely possible for a charity to have a single, national website, and a single set of social media accounts. Then it is the responsibility of all member organisations to contribute. You can even develop local specialisms, or channel leads. Coordination is needed to ensure this is effective, and to establish a consistent quality. But the results can be effective. It keeps all members happy and involved. And perhaps most importantly, it avoids a ‘wild west’ approach to communications.

Of course, if that’s not possible, there is one level that can still be considered:

3. Encourage local marketing teams to talk to each other.

If your federated charity needs to keep teams and assets separate, this is our absolute minimum recommendation. You need to encourage individual member organisations to collaborate. Whether this is through digital methods, regular meetings, or national gatherings, it is important that everyone shares resources.

The benefits are multiple. Each marketing team will start to understand how the others operate, what their challenges are, what tools they use. This can increase learning across the organisation, as well as saving money. It can also help to build a ‘team’ mentality which will eventually build a stronger, more effective federation.


There are many complex issues to navigate when managing a federated charity. People are often passionate and committed to their roles, but they can (sometimes) be resistant to change. This may result in a ‘stay as we are’ mentality. Maybe you can work to improve individual branch efficiencies. But here is the truth (that’s the reason you are reading the article, right?) Digital—or more precisely, effective digital—requires you to change.

Shift your charity to manage digital with a national approach and you will reap rewards. You will tackle challenges head on. Become more robust in the face of stiff competition. To step forward as a charity, it’s important that you take a step back, audit your digital ecosystem, and take a good look at the whole picture. Because federated charities with a more consolidated approach to digital, are the ‘forward-thinking’ charities. And these are the ones that thrive.