Make their voice heard

Media Trust unites charities looking to improve their profile and creatives who want to work for a worthy cause. David Bernstein signs up to spread the word

I had tea with Janine Ellingham the other day. You ought to meet her. She puts people like you in touch with people who need you.

Ellingham works for the charity Media Trust – which ‘helps charities communicate’ – running their on-line matching service. The trust also organises a media training programme, seminars in public relations strategy, internal communications, Web design, crisis management, creativity and branding, plus a design surgery. It runs its own community channel on Sky Digital 684, Telewest 233 and Freeview 46. It’s a comprehensive and professional service – yet, to judge from conversations with design and advertising folk, not as well known as it should be.

Maybe it should take its own medicine and fix itself up with a PR professional. I can vouch for the efficiency of the on-line matching service – and the benefits which accrue to each party, ie, the charity and the volunteer. The latter signs on via the website and scrolls the list of ‘current requests’. It’s unlikely that none of them will meet the volunteer’s attributes or circumstances. In last month’s list an Irish rural women’s network sought help in setting up a website; a North-East community project wanted assistance on promotional literature; a camp training outfit required a ‘colourful brochure that would appeal to 16- to 28-year-olds’; and an international service organisation needed guidance in setting up and running a ‘best website’ award.

The operation is focused. The charity briefly defines its remit and need: the volunteer’s participation is specific and limited, though a continuing relationship may develop. The media professional charges a reduced fee, putting everything on a businesslike footing.

The arrangement is genuinely win/win. Charities get professional help: volunteers enhance their portfolios, learn about new categories and about themselves, develop teaching skills and, since teaching is the best way to learn, augment their expertise.

Ellingham was free to talk about a recent matching. If you happen to live or work in the East End and have a piece of furniture you want to get rid of, Home Store will collect it for free and find it a good home. It’s a project run by Quaker Social Action. QSA has been working in the East End ‘to counteract poverty and social injustice’ since 1867. Established and governed by Quakers, its projects are open to all and volunteers come from a wide range of backgrounds, reflecting the diversity of today’s East End.

QSA approached the Media Trust for design help with leaflets for Home Store and four other projects. Within a week Rachel Fooks, a young designer who runs her own company in Dorset, got in touch. She and QSA’s Jenny Wight hit it off and began work. There were two design problems. The first is familiar – how to create items that are discrete, yet related. The answer was to use a unifying visual theme, the natural world (for example, a shell to represent housing for the homeless, a tree to represent growth for a project concerned with helping disadvantaged women get into business) in conjunction with a standard template. The images also solved the second problem, what sort of people to feature – real or models? And in what situations – before or after?

Ellingham is aware of the potential pitfalls. ‘One thing that can be difficult on a tight budget is appropriate images. Often photos taken by keen amateurs can give the wrong impression and there is always the issue of client confidentiality,’ she says.

The people I met in my own matching were certainly keen, but amateur only in the original sense of the word: lovers of what they do. And this is a warning to any potential volunteer who may envisage the task as one of teaching the basics of the particular discipline. The level generally is advanced and the external adviser has to earn respect. The more hands-on the better. Experience is valued but only if it is of specific relevance.

Wight is duly pleased with the results. ‘We have built up a great relationship with Rachel, who is incredibly generous with her time.’ The Media Trust can tell you of some 700 others who have logged on to – from marketing, PR, design, advertising, Web and broadcast. The last-named industry features prominently in the trust’s list of corporate members. So do leading newspaper groups.

I can recommend a spell as a volunteer to any media professional willing to devote time and energy to a worthwhile cause, if only that of enlightened self-interest.

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