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Social founders and branding: a delicate balancing act

Guest blog: James Partridge OBE

Oh such a shame, James Partridge OBE, Founder of Changing Faces and most recently of Face Equality International, will be in California on 1st October, and so not able to take part in our next Social Founders London Forum.

James is a Founding member of our Advisory Board, and a passionate supporter of the Social Founder Network.

So we asked him to write a guest blog in advance of our event, outlining his personal experience and thoughts around one of the topics we’ll be discussing at our Forum: that thorny issue of founder brand v organisation brand - when do they complement each other, and when and why might the founder brand get in the way of the organisation's wider development.

Read James’s piece below - thoughtful, insightful, and summarising 25 years of unique impact as a social founder. Add your thoughts below, and join us in London on 1st October - you can book a ticket HERE.

James Partridge OBE, Face Equality International, Fardous Bahbouh, Social Founder Network, Caroline Diehl, Social Founders, Social Founder Forim

James with social founder Fardous Bahbouh at the 2017 Social Founder Forum

Guest blog | Social founders and branding: a delicate balancing act
By James Partridge OBE

Anyone who sticks their neck out to create an organisation tackling a social cause is very very likely to have to gain considerable media and social media attention in so doing. As a social entrepreneur who has already persuaded (or is in the process of persuading) investors or charitable donors to support the cause, you are virtually (sic) bound to have to use all your powers of persuasion and probably no little charisma too. And you will need all of that to appeal to the wider world too.

Whatever you call your new venture, it has to be something very close to your heart — and it’s likely to become associated with you… I often heard people talk of “James Partridge’s charity, Changing Faces”. You become the public face of the charity — and in my case, that was very literally true. And I made the most of almost every opportunity to appear in the media — regrettably in some ways, social media was unavailable all those years ago… 1992 was almost 1992 BC: ‘before computers’! My ‘brand’ was the charity’s and vice versa and it was essential to embellish it whenever possible.

Today any social enterprise or charity starting up has to win attention in a very crowded communications world, if only for a few minutes. Score highly on ‘hits’, ‘impressions’ or ‘likes’ and you are off the ground. If you fail to get massive social media coverage, however important your cause may be, you’re liable to be deemed a near failure, ridiculous as that sounds.

Which places a huge pressure on today’s social entrepreneurs. By the time I was ready to create Face Equality International last November, I had a reputation and so my presence was less important — and it’s an alliance of NGOs and charities around the world rather than a charity seeking lots of individuals to join. My branding didn’t matter so much. In any case, by choosing as many do these days a name for the charity whose intent was clearly visible on the tin — about promoting face equality internationally — I made it easier for myself.
 

Perhaps there’s a lesson in that: if you don’t choose a name for your new venture which is a bit obscure, subtle or needs explanation, you may not have to rely so much on your own branding — and maybe that is healthier for the enterprise or charity as it develops too.

Because one of the trickiest manoeuvres any social founder has to make is to gradually make her or his presence irrelevant to the future of the organisation. The organisation’s brand has to become stronger and stronger over time until such a point as the founder is no longer the visible expression of its values and goals.

In my case, at Changing Faces, we probably left it a bit late, till 2016-17 — 24 years on! But had it not been for the horrendous consequences of the 2007-08 sub-prime credit crunch and the world recession that followed, we’d have done it earlier. As it was, funding the charity became immediately very hard in 2008 and as austerity carved through Britain’s public services and local authority funding, it became progressively more and more difficult. I needed to be out there, charisma at full blast, to keep the charity afloat and in the public eye.

When the decision was eventually taken in 2016 to upgrade the charity’s brand to make it ready for an era when I would not be leading it, I was delighted by the result. With very astute support from Geoff Dodds and with dedicated funding, we created a new feel for the charity. The ‘brand book’ which was developed through consultation with the whole staff and volunteer team asserted all the things that I care/cared passionately about but in a new language.
 

Describing Changing Faces as ‘caring campaigners’, the charity’s ambition was re-scripted: “to create an enlightened society, which fully accepts and values people who have a disfigurement… We want nothing short of a complete re-framing of disfigurement which tells the truth about this experience and acknowledges people’s rights to acceptance on equal terms.”

James Partridge OBE, Face Equality International, Stephen Bediako, Social Founder Network, Caroline Diehl, Social Founders, Social Founder Forim

James with social founder Stephen Bediako

And when we launched it in the spring of 2016, it was done through the Chair of Trustees with many champions speaking the key lines. I was nowhere in sight, rightly.

We then planned a gradual increase in Changing Faces’ profile focused on re-launching the charity’s cornerstone ‘campaign for face equality’ through a nationwide Face Equality Day in May 2017. This asserted why the charity exists and gathered support and endorsements throughout the country. We chose to use the charity’s new logo, a unique asymmetrical butterfly, as a powerful symbol — “everything about it makes it stand out.” Tens of thousands of people wore a butterfly transfer on their face (or body) that day in solidarity with people with facial disfigurements. All this was designed to ensure that the charity was a brand and an entity in its own right, freed from the founder’s branding. Whether it’s worked, I leave to your judgement!
 

Face Equality International, Face Equality, Butterfly

In launching Face Equality International last November, I had a very clear picture of how I wanted the new venture’s goals to stand out and bring its members together — using the powerful symbolism of the Japanese aesthetic known as Wabi-Sabi which sees the beauty, profundity and authenticity in imperfection. Read more here! It has already become a strong unifying theme for the 30 NGOs and charities around the world which are now members of the alliance. If you know NGOs which might be interested in joining, please pass this on…

To conclude, I have known many social founders over the years and most would admit that the question of how to balance promoting their brand with that of the organisation was hardly ever raised. Too difficult. I hope these few reflections will help to make it a topic which all social founders and their Boards of Directors/Trustees grapple with explicitly.

James Partridge OBE, September 2019

Face Equality, Face Equality International, Social Founder Network

Face Equality International's logo, inspired by Wabi-Sabi

Thanks James, for your openness and honesty, and congratulations on ‘starting again’ as a social founder of Face Equality International. All the many stages of your social founder journey are fascinating, and we’ll look forward to hearing more in the podcast featuring you- to launch soon. If you aren't subscribed to our newsletter, make sure you do so you're first to hear about our podcast!

Readers, please ADD YOUR COMMENTS BELOW, help us SHARE James’s blog, and JOIN US ON 1ST OCTOBER to hear our brilliant speakers and join in the debate at our next London Forum. Please book your tickets here.

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