Rhodri Davies, Programme Leader, Giving Thought

Rhodri Davies

Head of Policy

Charities Aid Foundation

The role of giving

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So You Want to Start a Philanthropy Podcast...?

1 April 2020


The pandemic has seen a proliferation of podcasting, as many people have taken the limitations imposed by lockdown measures as a prompt to experiment with launching their own show (presumably in between making sourdough starter and writing questions for Zoom-based quizzes…) Here at CAF, we were quite early adopters when it came to podcasting (in charity/philanthropy terms, at least). Our CAF Giving Thought podcast launched in May 2017, and we are just about to notch up our 100th full episode (not counting a handful of shorter bonus episodes we have done along the way). 


As a result of this relative longevity, I regularly get approached by other people in the sector for thoughts and advice on podcasting. And whilst this tends to prompt some crippling pangs of impostor syndrome (“what do I know?”, “why am I qualified to talk about this?” etc.), the experience of doing the Giving Thought podcast for the last four years has given me some insights, or at least opinions, on what to do and – probably even more so - what not to do.


So, to mark our 100th show, here are some of those thoughts. (I’m reluctant to call this “advice” or a “guide”, as it is based solely on a sample size of one and therefore a lot of what I say is particular to my own approach and way of doing things, but extrapolate from any of these musings what you will!)



Why Do You Want a Podcast?

The first question to ask yourself is “why do I want to do a podcast?” It involves quite a commitment in terms of work, and the competition for people’s attention within a crowded marketplace is increasingly fierce, so it is important to be clear up front exactly what your expectations are and what you want to get out of doing it. I would suggest that if your motivation doesn’t extend much beyond “I heard [insert competitor org] has a podcast” and your vision is something along the lines of “I want to be as popular as “Serial”; only about charity governance”, then it’s worth pausing for a minute and sense checking whether this is really something you want to do.


Which is not to put anyone off, I hasten to add! (And I’m certainly not trying to scare other people out of podcasting in order to keep the field clear for my show. Perish the thought. <ahem>). If you’re motivated and willing to put in the hard yards, podcasting is a fantastic tool and has some really great potential benefits. Among which (in my humble opinion) are:

  • It’s a good way of reaching new audiences
  • You can showcase your own expertise or insight
  • Hosting other people allows you to bring new voices and perspectives to audiences that might not otherwise hear them
  • It’s a great medium in which to deal with technical issues in an accessible way
  • You can use a podcast to build connections, and develop a community of listeners and guests
  • If you already produce a lot of content in other formats (blogs, articles, events etc), then a podcast is a good way of repackaging it
  • Podcasts themselves make for really useful content that lends itself to repurposing and recycling in many different ways.


If you are planning on launching a podcast in the context of an organisation, it also makes sense to identify a person or group of people who are really willing to take ownership and act as champions for the show. In my opinion (which, again, is not the only one available) podcasts work best when they have identifiable hosts: this makes it easier to establish a consistent tone, and having a human face identifiable with the podcast helps when it comes to engaging on social media etc. So the question for any organisation is whether someone is willing to take on this role (and have it recognised as part of their job, so that it isn’t seen as something they do in addition to everything else they were already doing).



What Format Are You Going To Use?

Much like teenagers starting a band, the temptation at this point is probably to spend the next few days arguing about what your name should be - but before you get to that, there are a couple of more basic things you need to consider first about the podcast’s format.


The first thing to think about is presenters: how many of them do you want and who are they going to be? We started off doing the Giving Thought podcast as a two-hander (with my erstwhile colleague Adam Pickering), but for the last few years it has been just me hosting. I think (and hope!) that this works fine, particularly because many of the episodes are interviews, but in an ideal world it is probably desirable to have a range of voices to keep a bit of variety in proceedings. In the context of an organisation this may present a bit of a challenge, as it means finding more people who want to get involved in hosting. For someone like me who has a reasonable amount of affection for the sound of their own voice, it’s often easy to forget that not everyone is that comfortable with the idea of recording themselves speaking – and whilst I think it is good to support people to get involved if they can (as the people who don’t current feel confident speaking up may well be precisely the voices that we need to hear more of), it is also important to respect the fact that podcasting is not going to be for everyone.


Next, you might want to consider how long your podcast is going to be. There’s no right answer to this, and you obviously don’t need to stick rigidly to a specific length, but it is useful to have an idea of what you are aiming for so that you know roughly how much content you will need for each episode (and therefore how much work it is likely to take). I personally think that podcasts benefit from being slightly longer, as one of the great strengths of the format to my mind is that you can give conversations room to breathe, but that is (like so many things) merely a matter of taste. Whatever length you do go for, however, it’s probably best to have some consistency, so that you aren’t putting out 5 minute-long episodes one week and 3 hour-long ones the following week (although this is a rule that, like so many others, you may deliberately choose to break at times).


Another consideration is tone: what kind of “voice” do you want your podcast to have? There is obviously a wide spectrum in podcasting, from sober and serious reportage and analysis, through to gleeful inanity and silliness. If you’re doing a podcast about philanthropy you’ll probably want to aim somewhere in the middle. To my mind one of the real strengths of podcasting is that it is a format in which you can balance lightness of tone and unashamedly dealing with topics in depth, and my favourite shows are those that manage to hit a sweet spot where they deal with relatively complex topics in a way that is accessible and fun, but without talking down to their audience. 


The final consideration (for now) is what sort of format a typical episode is going to have. Will you have recurring features or segments? Are you going to have guests? If so, is the whole episode going to consist of an interview, or will there be a mixture of interview, analysis, news etc? You don’t, of course, have to have just one answer to these questions: you might want to have a few different episode formats and switch between them. The CAF Giving Thought podcast, for instance, is a mixture of interview episodes (published as long-form conversations) and deep-dive explorations of a particular issue or theme (which tend to be done in the form of a semi-improvised, but structured, monologue by me). Which I think maintains a decent balance (and the occasional straw polls I do of listeners reassure me that I’m at least vaguely right...)




Since we already touched on the subject, let’s just take a brief detour at this point to consider some of the questions you might need to consider if you are thinking of having guests on your show.


The two most fundamental questions, from which a lot of the answers to subsequent questions will flow, are “who do you want on?” and “why do you want them on?” Taking the second question first, do you want people to come on and talk about themselves and their experiences or to offer perspectives on issues? If you want people to come on and talk about themselves, are you planning on focussing primarily on people you already know, or do you want to use your podcast to make new contacts and bring unfamiliar voices to the table? Or if you want people to come on and talk about issues, do you have any thoughts on what those issues might be and who you want to talk to about them? 


If you are primarily thinking of drawing guests from your existing contacts, that shouldn’t be too much work. But if you want to cast the net more widely, you need to think about some of the practicalities of how you will actually identify and approach people. 

  • What channel will you use to contact people? (I find, for instance, that Twitter DMs work quite well but that might just be me). 
  • What are you asking people to do- is it an hour long conversation or a 15 minute chat?
  • What is your pitch for why they would want to come on your show? i.e. what is in it for them, why your show rather than another one etc?
  • If you get a positive response, do you want to set up an introductory chat before the podcast recording to get a better sense of what this person will be like as a guest to discuss how the conversation might go? (I tend to do this where possible, although in some cases it is obviously not possible to get that much of someone’s time so it has to be more of a one-shot deal).
  • Are you going to send questions or talking points ahead of the podcast recording? (I also do this- on the basis that it is useful to clarify the framing of the conversation and the broad topics you want to cover).


A bit further down the line, you might also want to give some thought to how you deal with people approaching you, to suggest themselves or others as guests. I am delighted (and continually surprised tbh) to say that I get quite a lot of approaches these days for the Giving Thought podcast, some from  PR firms on behalf of clients and others directly from individuals. Whilst some of these aren’t quite the right fit, we’ve also had many great episodes come about in this way (sometimes from people that I would definitely have asked myself but had assumed would say no - which is in itself a salutary lesson!)



Let’s Get Technical: how are you going to record it?

Right- you’re clear on why you want to do a podcast and you’ve got a format, now what about the nuts and bolts of actually recording the thing? Well, this is where we potentially veer off into techno-nerdery; and since there are many other places on the internet where you can get much more well-informed advice on the technical side of podcasting I’m not going to pretend to offer much sage wisdom here. (If you do ever want more opinions on the technical details though, such as trade-offs between audio compression and convenience when it comes to recording via Zoom, you can always buy me a coffee or a pint and I will happily talk at you for hours…)


The main point I want to get across is: this really doesn’t need to be very expensive. You might assume that because the CAF Giving Thought podcast is done within a big organisation and sounds so slick <ahem>, that it involves a lot of people, cost and equipment but in actual fact it doesn’t. If you want a peek behind the curtain, a rough list of the resources we use would be:

  • My time (which is obviously OUTRAGEOUSLY expensive….)
  • Some help from my lovely colleagues sorting a page on the CAF website for each episode and doing social media (which I don’t think takes up too much of their time).
  • A medium-range laptop
  • An £80 USB condenser microphone (Blue Yeti, since you ask, but other options are available).
  • Some free audio editing software (Audacity)
  • A Zoom pro license (c. £14 per month, which I would probably have been spending anyway for work meetings etc.)
  • A podcast hosting service (we use Libsyn and it is about £15 per month, but again, there are many more options available these days).

And that’s about it… I dont tell you all this merely to burnish my DIY punk-ethic credentials, but rather to make the point that podcasting is (or at least can be) a pretty low-cost medium, so no-one should feel that it is out of reach for them.



Your First Episode

Right, you’ve got the motive and the means- now it’s time to get on with it. So what else do you need before you launch your new podcast on an unsuspecting world?


The first thing, clearly, is to record some episodes. I would suggest aiming to record a few as trial runs before you put anything out, to give you a chance to test what works or doesn’t work for you and establish a workflow that you think will be manageable for future episodes. If you’re lucky, these episodes will be gold straight off the bat and you can publish them, but it’s worth being prepared for recording a few that never see the light of day in order to ensure your first show is up to scratch. (We jettisoned at least three early efforts at the first Giving Thought podcast, for instance). Once you do publish, of course, you’ll probably still want to keep refining and improving by making tweaks to the format or changing how you record or edit, so your first episode needn’t be a fixed template.


As well as your vocal recordings, you probably also need some music for the podcast. You might want at least a theme tune and a couple of musical “stings” that you can use to break episodes up a bit. If you are musical yourself, or have some in your organisation who happens to be, you might be able to get this for free: the music for the Giving Thought podcast, for instance, was written and recorded by my former co-host Adam (whilst we were both watching Season 1 of “Stranger Things”, which might help explain the 80s synth vibe). But if you can’t draw on free help, there plenty of musicians now offering to compose and write music for podcasts for reasonable sums via web-based services.


You also need some imagery to use for your podcast page (which you should get as part of your hosting service), and for social media. If you are the sort of person (like me) who quite likes fiddling about and experimenting with digital tools, then learning how to create imagery, GIFs, audiograms etc can be really fun. If that sort of thing isn’t your bag, and you don’t have a marketing department to call on, then again you can find people who will create the imagery you need for relatively low cost if you give them a brief of what you want.

So you’ve got you first episode ready to go, including music and pretty pictures. The final question now is where do you want to put it? The answer to that can be on your own website (if you have one) or on a general purpose audio hosting platform like SoundCloud, but – and this is where I will offer my one strongly-held and contentious opinion – to me that isn’t really a podcast. There’s nothing wrong with audio content hosted on your own website, of course, but to be a genuine podcast it needs:

A. To come out according to a regular schedule, so people know when to expect episodes (i.e. audio content that you put up as and when you have it doesn’t really count), and

B. To be available in all (or most) of the places people normally go to get podcasts (e.g. Apple Music, Google Music, Spotify, all the various podcasting apps etc).


Point B is why I think it is worth using a podcast hosting platform, as for not very much expense you get not only a dedicated website for your show, but it also pushes your episodes out automatically to all of the big podcast platforms so that people can find and listen to your show wherever they normally get other podcasts (which is more convenient, and makes your podcast feel more “proper”).

Assuming you are using a hosting service, you need to write some general descriptive blurb for your podcast, add in your images, and make sure all the settings are sorted so that your show gets published where you want (all of which you should only need to do once, barring occasional refreshes). Once you’ve uploaded your precious first episode, you’ll then need to write show notes for that particular episode (telling people what’s on it, who any guests are, including links to any related content etc). And at that point, you are ready to hit the “publish” button! (At whatever point you’ve decided on for your publication schedule).


Of course, that’s not the end of it- it’s only the beginning. You need to have a plan for how you are going to promote the podcast. (As unfortunately, in my experience, taking the Kevin Costner in “Field of Dreams” approach of assuming that “if you build it they will come” doesn’t tend to work that well…) That means there are a few more questions you need to think about:

  • Which social media channels are you going to use?
  • Are you going to try to tag particular people in and encourage them to share it for you?
  • Do you have an email newsletter you can use to promote the show?



What Next?

So you’ve got yourself a podcast: what next? Well, one thing is obviously just producing regular episodes (though if you are anything like me you might want to give yourself the occasional break. Of course, you can just claim that you’ve reached the end of a “season” and it will then sound you had it planned all along…) But it’s also good to keep yourself on your toes and think about how you can improve your show or get more out of each episode.


One easy thing to do is just to keep an eye out for opportunities to link old episodes to current events or conversations on social media. E.g. if it is International Women’s Day, give a shout-out to all your female guests or flag up any episodes you’ve got specifically on women’s issues. Or if one of your guests is in the news (hopefully for something good!) then take the opportunity to mention that they have been on your show. You need to be pretty proactive about this kind of thing, although developing the knack for doing it without looking too brazen is a definite art. (And not necessarily one I have mastered myself tbh, as I think some of my efforts to shoehorn past podcast content in have been a bit clunky- but it’s all a learning curve isn’t it…?)


For my part, I’m looking forward to the next 100 episodes of the podcast. We’ve got some great guests already lined up and some exciting ideas for themed episodes, but I also want to keep thinking about how we can improve and make the show better. I’ve experimented with using automated transcription, for instance, using Otter.ai. Whilst I don’t quite have the capacity to fine tune that to the required standard at the moment to make it work without significant additional editing, it is something I’m keen to experiment more with, as it would be great to turn past episodes of the podcast into written content too.

So I feel like I’ve still got plenty to learn. And although what I have said here is neither definitive nor comprehensive- as I have been at pains to point out, there are plenty of things I haven’t covered and plenty of things I have covered that you might well disagree with - hopefully there is at least some useful food for thought. And if that plays a part in inspiring even one person reading to take the plunge into podcasting, I’ll be delighted!


Public Good by Private Means

Rhodri Davies' book tells the story of philanthropy through the ages, and examines the relationship between philanthropists, the state and society.

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