Falling public trust is a clear and present danger to charities
The Charity Commission this morning published research that indicates public trust in charities is in decline. This is a serious piece of research, one that echoes the findings of similar studies over the last year. In short, I believe that the fall in public trust is real, it is here, and it is a threat to the future of the charity sector.
In the face of mounting evidence that a significant proportion of the public are unhappy with the charity sector, and regardless of where the problems arose, I’d like to set out what collectively charities, and their membership bodies, have been doing in response. I’d also like to explain how we are going to address these concerns in the coming months.
NCVO, CharityComms and ACEVO are working together on this, supported by numerous charities. We’ve also seen great stuff from DSC, Charity Bank and others. I want to be clear: we do not have all the answers. There are diverse views on the nature of the problem and potential solutions. We’re doing what we think is relevant to our analyses of the problem and which is practically realisable. We’re more than happy for others to make contributions. This is the first of what I hope will be a series of blog posts on the subject – my comments below are a very top-line summary of our work, and that of others.
Why is public trust falling?
Today’s research reports that on a scale from 1 to 10, trust in charities has fallen from 6.7 to 5.7. The analysis behind this statistically significant fall identifies what are now some familiar issues: fundraising methods that make people feel uncomfortable; a view that too much is spent on salaries and ‘administration costs’; and a lack of understanding about how a charity is run and managed.
None of this is new – I could show you front page headlines from 20 years ago with the same complaints. What is new is the environment within which these stories appear. Broadly speaking, I would argue that the divisions in society so brutally surfaced by the referendum campaign affect charities just as much as other institutions. And secondly, the digital world we now live in makes it much easier to unearth, share and comment on the work of charities – except that sometimes it doesn’t, to the increasing frustration of a society where transparency is a value.
Old problems, newly resonant with a sometimes disaffected public, are now amplified beyond our comprehension. Failure to communicate how modern charity works has not helped either.
The role of the media
It is no coincidence that trust has declined over the last year, which has been something of an annus horribilis for charities in the media. For those who say they trust charities less, media coverage – the source of much debate in our sector – is seen as significant contributory factor by today’s research. While the details of scandals such as Kids Company are rarely remembered, coverage resonates. It confirms what people were feeling.
Critical for me here is research from YouGov a few months ago, plus research from BritainThinks for the Understanding Charities Group: media coverage reflects what people were already thinking, particularly in relation to large charities. And the public think that charities are not doing anything in response. This strikes me as critical.
As Mark Flannagan remarked at this morning’s launch of the research, blaming the media for scrutinising charities is quite possibly the worst response we could make. Therefore, what should we do?
We need to start listening more & focus on the difference we make; make it personal: no more 'machine charity', says @MarkFlannCEO
— Vicky Browning (@browning_vicky) June 28, 2016
Charity is changing
At the heart of any response to the public’s concerns is to show them that we are listening to their concerns and of course acting upon them. We have consistently received advice that simply saying we do good, and ignoring concerns about how we do good, will not work. We have to show the world that charity is changing.
This means setting our own, higher standards in relation to fundraising. It means strengthening our governance. It means upping our game on transparency and accountability. It means getting better at reporting our impact and showing why and how we make a difference. It means living the values that we have on the wall.
None of this is easy, or quick. One size will not fit all. One size did not cause all the problems. Neither is it simply someone else’s problem: just because we weren’t on the front page doesn’t mean that we aren’t part of the solution.
We can point to changes. The establishment of a new Fundraising Regulator in a few weeks’ time is a testament to the sector sorting itself out. We are seeing more and more interest from trustee boards in whether or not their approach to governance is fit for purpose. In the autumn, the working group behind the sector’s Code of Good Governance will consult on a new, revised code. And more charities are taking steps to improve transparency around issues such as salaries. We’ll help charities to get this right.
Finally, we are taking steps to explain better how modern charity works. This includes a public facing website inspired by goodcharity.ie and, with CFG, tools for journalists to help navigate what is, at times, a jargon-ridden and niche world of charity annual reports and accounts. We’re also trying to make facts about the charity sector easier to consume with infographics and video over at our charities data website.
Changed by charity
If ‘charity is changing’ is an appeal to the head, then we also need to appeal to the heart. We need to explain to people how modern charities make a difference, how their world is changed by charity (a phrase suggested by Matthew Sherrington). We need to be clear that modern charities are the vehicles for their social action. And we need to better show, every day, how charities offer solutions to the issues that people care about.
— Giselle Green (@GiselleG7) February 19, 2016
Led by CharityComms, we are developing a narrative framework for how we can talk to the public about modern charity – this accompanying blog from Vicky Browning explains. With an accompanying toolkit, we hope to help charities everywhere talk about the modern charity sector and their role in it. This is based on a successful approach to deal with the same problems in Canada. We’ll blog more about the narrative project soon.
We’re also working with others to connect journalists increasingly interested in solutions to the charities that provide them via NCVO’s Constructive Voices project. Inspiring, every day stories that exemplify how charities make our world better. We’re also talking to media organisations about how we can build upon successes such as the BBC’s volunteering season.
Today’s research is a reminder that we have much to do. But its also clear that there’s a lot going on, and much to build upon.
Our sister organisation in Canada has gone through a similar cycle in terms of public trust. There’s a bit of learning for us here: the first thing that we have to do is get those working in the charity sector to agree on key messages and, surprisingly, that we do good and do it well. I’d take from this that now is not the time for us to be blaming each other for the problems we face.
I’d hope that by the end of the year we will be able to look back and see real progress in meeting head-on the public’s concerns. This is work in progress –get in touch or comment below if you’d like to explore how we can work together.