Have charities misled the public about how they work?

In the popular US drama, Suits, the protagonist is a talented young lawyer, all set for a successful career. But he has a problem – he faked his Harvard law degree and he’s in constant danger of being exposed as a fraud. The longer he goes on letting people believe he’s a lawyer, the bigger the risks become.

This is how some people see charities’ current relationship with the public. The public, they argue, believe charities all to be run by volunteers and funded by donations. The longer they go on believing this, the bigger the fallout will be when they realise that the charity brands they know best are run by professional staff, and that half the sector’s total income comes not from rattling tins, but from government, largely in the form of contracts for running public services. In the meantime, they’re becoming increasingly disillusioned, it’s said, by high executive pay and irksome fundraising methods.

Is this a problem?

There are several possible responses to this, some mutually compatible, others not:

  • It’s not a problem. There have always been grumbles about charities but it doesn’t affect trust or income. If it’s not broken it doesn’t need fixing, and if you try and fix it, you might break it. We need the income in order to do good and we shouldn’t jeopardise it.
  • This is a ticking timebomb (1). Good will towards charities will disappear as the public discover that charities aren’t what they thought they were. So we need to act quickly to change the public’s understanding.
  • This is a ticking timebomb (2). Good will towards charities will disappear as the public discover that charities aren’t what they thought they were. So we need to act quickly to change how charities operate.

The first response has some data in its favour. In general, levels of trust in charity have been consistently high over recent years. But the evidence also suggests there is growing public concern about how charities use their money. So I don’t think we can say it’s as simple as ‘there isn’t a problem’. And even if there isn’t now, it doesn’t mean there couldn’t be in the future. You can read more about the evidence in a report summarising what we know about trust in charities from my colleague Joy Dobbs.

What can we do?

Assuming you’ve accepted the thesis that there is some form of problem or risk – and opinions will differ on its magnitude – we then move on to what the solutions might be.

How could we give people a more realistic understanding of how charities work without deterring them from donating in the first place? Who do we start with, what messages do we need to convey, and how? And given there’s a limit to how much we can ever expect anyone to take in, what are the priorities, and what is most achievable?

You can put opinion on these issues on a spectrum, from somewhere like ‘we just need to maximise our impact/fundraising, telling people the gory detail might put them off listening to us or donating to us’, to ‘we need to be totally open and transparent even at the cost of losing donors or influence in the short term’.

And on the flip side – what’s unhelpful? Are there things that charities simply need to stop doing or saying in order to maintain public trust?

The wider context

One commenter said on an nfpSynergy blog post – ‘The sector is always saying that they are transparent, but the fact is, we work in a sector which is almost a total mystery to anyone who doesn’t work in it.’

I think there’s some truth in this, but I also think it’s the case for many other professions and industries. And charities aren’t alone in having public perception issues. The CBI, for example, has a campaign to improve the image of business. Some of the concerns will feel very familiar – here, for example, they look at whether small businesses lose out to big businesses. Just the other day on Five Live the chief exec of a smaller charity was bemoaning ‘the big boys’ who ‘hoover up vast amounts of the charity money’ (He goes on to allude to an interesting related debate about the use of stereotypical images of beneficiaries in fundraising materials. You can listen here, for a few days at least.) The point is that we also have to remember the overall context of public faith in institutions generally, especially large ones, not just charities.

An initiative which NCVO is part of, the Understanding Charities Group, has been doing a lot of thinking about all these issues, and is in the process of developing a theory of change for securing sustainable public trust and confidence in charities. We’ll be sharing our thinking on this in the near future.

I’ll be debating these issues at Evolve, NCVO’s major annual conference next month with Vicky Browning of CharityComms, Tris Lumley of New Philanthropy Capital, and Richard Spencer, head of supporter development at the RSPB. You can book online here.

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Aidan Warner Aidan Warner is NCVO’s external relations manager. He writes about charity communications. He has previously worked at the BBC, the General Medical Council and Mind, the mental health charity.

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