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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Karl Wilding Karl Wilding served as NCVO's chief executive from September 2019 to February 2021.

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