How a new charity is transforming perceptions of arthritis

OLIVIA BELLE AND PHILLIPA WILLIAMS OF VERSUS ARTHRITIS SHARE THE CHARITY’S JOURNEY TOWARDS GIVING PEOPLE WITH ARTHRITIS A VOICE AND TRANSFORMING SOCIETAL PERCEPTIONS

Transformation can sometimes be a predictable, safety first affair. New logos, mergers that allow for pooled resources, a tweak of the brand purpose. Not so much transformation, as a bit of a change. Which makes what we’re trying to do at Versus Arthritis different and bolder. We’re not just transforming who we are but how we work, support, engage and campaign for change. We’ve torn down the walls and are empowering communities of people who live with arthritis to talk about their experience, how they are ‘versus arthritis’ in their own way. In doing so we’re becoming more relevant and trusted as a brand, our work is more meaningful and our actions more empowering.

We’ve effectively transformed ourselves into a listening organisation

Aside from all the other functions we fulfil, we’re facilitating a new dialogue within society among people affected by arthritis. Not just those living with it, but also their friends, colleagues and family – enabling them to come together with the aim of increasing understanding and having a more visible, vocal societal conversation about the impact of the condition. Arthritis, for them, isn’t just an inevitable consequence of ageing as some might view it but a debilitating condition that afflicts 10 million people in the UK alone. And governments, employers, stakeholders and healthcare professionals are very often not dealing with the physical and emotional impact of living with arthritis sufficiently, scratching the surface rather than truly getting to grips with the issue.

By creating a new organisation – merging Arthritis Research UK and Arthritis Care – we are transforming not just ourselves but the public discourse. As a result, people will feel involved in a way they hadn’t in the past – emboldened, more ambitious, more willing to volubly talk about their condition.

Though we’ve built on the legacy of both charities and the different skill sets of employees, we’ve effectively transformed ourselves into a listening organisation. We’re encouraging others to express themselves, put their heads above the parapet and share their experiences, alongside the work the organisation is doing. It’s a shift that’s not easy to make – as any brand going through a similar transformation will attest – but it is one that’s continually teaching us things we hadn’t anticipated.

If charities do all the talking instead of the people who need our help, the impact of the message is lessened, the engagement is limited and the trust is diminished. Trust is such a vital issue in the sector right now and we’re finding that giving those who live with arthritis the chance to express themselves in a more authentic way is already changing attitudes.

People with arthritis are being encouraged to talk about the reality of their condition in a way that was often denied to them in the past, mostly due to societal norms. And there’s a new-found validity in what they’re discussing – in particular, the need for better access and support. And because those messages will be less ‘owned’ by us as a charity, it means that we’ll become better listeners to those we’re here to support.

We’re transforming the way people with arthritis see themselves because we’re empowering them

In the end, we’re transforming ourselves into an organisation that’s better able to deliver changes because we’re more inclusive. And we’re transforming the way people with arthritis see themselves because we’re empowering them.

We’re still at the beginning of that journey and it’s difficult to predict where it will take us. But if a core purpose of a brand such as ours is to change attitudes, we’re making real headway – among the public, stakeholders, people living with arthritis and indeed ourselves.

It already feels like quite a transformation.

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