Charities and public opinion

YouGov has today published research on what the public, MPs and opinion formers think of charities or, more specifically, large charities. YouGov’s polling will be published in a white paper later this week. I’ve just come back from a meeting where we have discussed these findings in detail and I have put forward the charity sector’s perspective.

While there is comfort from the large proportion of the population who continue to think that the sector has a good reputation and that charities are socially useful, there is clearly dissatisfaction regarding large charities in particular.

There is an overall decline in the perception that charities are trustworthy, and in the perception that we operate to high standards. More worryingly, substantial majorities believe that media coverage of issues such as senior salaries, fundraising tactics and failure to protect vulnerable donors are fair. There is criticism that charities are too political. Of all the findings, I believe this has least credence, but I will return to this in another blog (I don’t think finding fault in the research as a whole is a useful way forward).

Perhaps of most concern is that for those who think coverage in the media has been fair, a substantial majority believe that large charities have not taken the accusations seriously. So, not only are we on the wrong side of public opinion, we are complacent in response.

How did we get here?

These findings confirm much of what we knew already and that we collectively have already begun to address. A dent in the reputation of the whole sector is the natural impact of the recent barrage of negative stories about individual charities. We have long argued that effective scrutiny of charities is right and proper and that we should be able to answer any question put to us, however difficult. Long before this polling began, charities had already taken on board the legitimate criticisms which have been raised and have already begun putting their houses in order. We have argued that where we have got it wrong, charities need to strengthen their own governance and management (such as in fundraising). We have similarly argued that the best way to deal with many of the challenges put to us is a renewed focus on transparency and accountability, such as better communication around senior salaries.

YouGov’s research has found that more than anything else, the public want more transparency. I believe that this now requires serious thought and a need to move on from arguments that transparency is an unnecessary cost. In the digital age, public expectations regarding transparency have fundamentally changed, but I don’t think as a sector we have quite realised or accepted that. The public also want to see change in the regulation of fundraising. I believe that the implementation of the review of fundraising self-regulation, along with changes to the Fundraising Code of Practice, meet this demand for change. But if these results represent the public mood, we have not yet ‘cut through’ in making the case that we are changing. And change we must: lukewarm reception for self-regulation may signal support for statutory intervention.

Not all criticism has been accurate or fair, and we have robustly defended charities where accusations have been misinformed, such as in the True and Fair Foundation’s very poor report on charities’ spending. And we have not sought to ‘shoot the messenger’ by blaming the media – it is right in principle that they scrutinise us.

Nevertheless, much of this has been firefighting: and in the relentless fire we have had little time or space to set out our own narrative on why charity matters, why charities exist only to benefit the public, and why charities make a difference every day.

What should we do now?

Broadly speaking, there are two approaches if we are to genuinely deal with the public’s concerns over the charity sector: deal with the problems that are the cause of concern, and show the public that we are changing and how modern charity now works.

It will not be enough to simply tell the public we are changing.

Much of what NCVO has been doing over the last few years has been trying to address the public’s concerns. For example, both the review of fundraising self-regulation, and in creating guidance on setting and communicating senior salaries (PDF) address key concerns identified in the research.

More could and should be done around encouraging take up of the pay inquiry recommendations on transparency, and on transparency in general. As I have argued already, we need a wider debate on transparency, beyond sterile arguments that we can’t provide any more financial information. It is not a panacea, but it is a basic hygiene factor. No one can accuse us of hiding information if we publish it in plain sight. The fact that we do so, and can say we do so, should engender trust.

I think we need to address the issue of strengthening governance, and I know many share our concerns. Renewing The Code of Good Governance may be one such vehicle for a debate in the sector about what good governance looks like; other solutions may include more investment in building capability. There are others too.

We also need to communicate these changes and explain to the public how modern charity works. NCVO and ACEVO have been working closely together recently to build upon and take forward the work of the Understanding Charities Group, particularly the work being led by CharityComms on developing a narrative to describe the modern charity sector. In the spring we will use this narrative as the basis for a website that helps the public to understand the modern sector and the deployment of messages for all of us in the sector to use. We are also strengthening our relations with the media, not least of which is an emphasis on reporting the positive work undertaken by charities.

Where do we go now?

Public trust in charities is resilient – but there are serious issues of substance that we have to address before we can have a conversation about the reason we exist and the difference we make. Today’s findings are a further step on that journey and we would do well to reflect upon them and redouble our efforts to act on these issues.


How can charities build trust with the public?

Discuss this in more detail and find out how we can work together to rebuild public trust in the sector at our Annual Conference on 18 April.

Find out more about NCVO Annual Conference 2016


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6 Responses to Charities and public opinion

  1. Truly well-intentioned fundraiser says:

    I have no issues at all with transparency — I truly welcome it because I think it leads to better performance — but I wonder whether it is really the answer to the issues around public perception. I think charities are already pretty transparent, especially compared to companies of a similar size. It is dead easy to find out how much is spent on salaries, what the total income is, etc. just by visiting the Charity Commission web site. And yet I wonder how many hits they actually get on the links for the accounts of individual charities — it would be amazing for the Charity Commission to publish this (and for us to try to back out how many of those hits came from grant funders or other sector professionals accessing the accounts as part of their work, i.e. how many of them were members of the public!!).

    I think the “general public” claiming that they want more transparency is really a smoke-screen masking other desires. It’s not that they object to charities not being transparent enough about what they spend on executive pay; it’s that they object to executive pay full stop. Transparency didn’t stop the True and Fair Foundation from publishing its misguided report, or the Telegraph giving its ludicrous claims a wide audience.

    And I certainly don’t think greater transparency will lead to an increase in donations — let’s remember the NPC research that demonstrated that only 7% of UK donors use research to help them make a donation decision. If even DONORS, let alone the general public, aren’t doing any research on charities, why do we think that there will be some magic bullet found in greater transparency?

    Bottom line for me: transparency is a rational response to a set of, largely, emotionally-driven perceptions about the sector, so trying to use it to improve the public perception of charities is about as helpful as dancing about architecture. We need to fight the battle on the correct front — this is about people’s hearts, not their minds! Show the impact (in people terms, not just statistics) of what we do and re-build trust and confidence through that.

    • Karl Wilding Karl Wilding says:

      Truly well-intentioned fundraiser,
      That’s a well-thought through response and addition to the debate. Thank you.

      I’ve come across these arguments in the many debates I’ve been involved in when we’ve got to the ‘Now what?’ stage. Many would support your points. In response, I’d add to the debate by saying:

      Transparency: you’re right that a majority of the public have no interest in being an armchair auditor. An army of the latter is unlikely, to paraphrase a recent Minister. But I think that there’s a fair bit of evidence from other sectors that the public want to know that this stuff is there, available for researchers, analysts or journalists to look at if need be. In that sense, I’d argue that transparency has become a value that people want to know organisations will commit to.

      On pay: a difficult issue we have to face down as the sector is that there is a proportion of the public that will never support some of the salaries charities pay. No amount of openness, or explanation will make a difference. And lets not forget that some people think that no one involved in a charity should be paid. But for those who don’t understand how modern charity works, it behoves us to better communicate how and why we make decisions on issues such as pay. So transparency isn’t just about more numbers: its transparency about process, the end product of which is better explanatory narrative.

      Finally, on head and heart. The Understanding Charities Group have discussed this an awful lot while developing our theory of change. We reckon we need both. It’s why some of us have been using the #changedbycharity hashtag to highlight how charities are the vehicle by which people change the world. It’s why we need to be able to tell stories about the difference that we make.

      But we can’t use such stories to essentially argue that the ends justify any means because what we do is so morally righteous. We’ve had *lots* of advice from those who have dealt with crises in other countries and in other sectors and we’ve been told clearly that before we can have a conversation about impact we need to give the public confidence that we have sorted out our problems.

      I’m at if you want to discuss more!

  2. John Webster says:

    I’d like to thank NCVO for continuing to ‘bang the drum’ about transparency and perhaps more importantly, practising what they preach! It’s not difficult to find detailed information regarding NCVO finances on their own website rather than having to visit the Charity Commission website. In addition, it’s pleasing to see that accounts were filed well before the deadline (but still room for improvement!). Fortunately, there are others such as Charity Finance Group who also demonstrate transparency as well as talking about it. However, there are too many others (including some who should know better) who make it difficult to find financial information on their own website and then wait until the last moment before filing their accounts at the Charity Commission. As a result we often can only see annual reports when they are almost a year out of date! Frankly, this is not good enough and hardly a good example of transparency. Others could argue that these charities are doing nothing wrong and are fully compliant but as Sir Stuart Etherington said recently “…the best defence is to live our values and be seen to live our values.” Charities should surely aspire to more than simply complying with regulation – this isn’t transparency, this is compliance – and there’s a difference.

  3. Russell says:

    This maybe a little controversial, and not sure I fully believe it myself, but just putting it out there in the debate.

    I think to some extent we have to accept that in society, some people just don’t like the big guys.

    It goes for supermarkets, football clubs and many other areas.

    Perhaps we should concern ourselves less with trying to make everyone love all of us and just focus on those that already love us.

    Let’s face it, some people will want to donate a coat to a local homeless project to help, some will donate to a big charity to campaign to end homelessness. Some of course do both.

    I am starting to believe that much of what we read on comments sections and social media are views that are long-held, but only now are we are aware of them.

    That’s not to say we don’t have issues from past 12 months to address, but perhaps the issues are not on the scale that we believe.

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  5. Caroline F McGovern says:

    Transparency and accountability are steps in the right direction regarding trust?