What’s next on public trust and confidence in charities?

Charities have yet again hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons. While most people will have been distracted by current political machinations and the reshuffle/a British winner at Wimbledon and/or even the incredible sight of outgoing PM David Cameron humming a merry tune – I hope that charities were paying close attention. It’s a clear signal that the media spotlight on how we conduct our work continues to be as strong as ever.

Research from the Charity Commission confirms what most of us have known for some time – trust in charities, particularly larger ones, has taken a substantial hit. Media coverage has confirmed existing concerns that charities have lost sight of their values. In essence, some of our fundraising methods make people feel uncomfortable, and the public feel we spend too much on ourselves and not enough on the frontline and there is a general lack of understanding of how charities are run and managed.

Our underlying analysis is that the public concern is very real, and the media will continue to reflect that until both are convinced charities have changed their ways. Our director of public policy, Karl Wilding, has set out in his blog post some of the ways in which charities are responding to this.

We are very clear that any attempts to restore trust and confidence must be based on substantive commitments from charities – to responsible fundraising, to clearer communications on how we raise and spend the public’s money (including total transparency on salaries, a real sticking point for many people), and more open and effective governance.

Cutting through

In addition to making the changes the public want to see, it’s clear we need to talk directly (and more consistently) to the public about how modern charity works and how charities enable them to make a difference to the world around them. We were very taken by the suggestion from Matthew Sherrington that this work focusses on how their world is #changedbycharity (and complements the work mentioned above on how charity is changing).

This builds on work done by CharityComms, the Understanding Charities group, Acevo and others, and supported by research by Britain Thinks – setting out a narrative framework for how we can talk to the public about modern charity – this blog post from Vicky Browning explains more. The narrative tells a story about people making the difference, and how charities harness people’s individual goodwill and combine it with professional expertise and vision to create the biggest possible impact.

The narrative contains three of the most powerful words in charity communications I’ve seen in a long while – ‘because of you’. It’s simple and effective and empowers supporters to feel connected to the work we do. Most importantly it focuses on the impact and benefit of charity to society, and less on the organisations; how we are all touched by charity, and benefit from it. You can read more about the narrative and the insights we found in the slidedeck below.

Like any useful communications insights – the most important thing is how we apply this knowledge – it was never intended to work as a statement to be reeled off in response to any question but a foundation to build on, adapt and integrate into wider communications.

We know that the current version of the narrative won’t work for everyone – it’s clearly focussed on charities that have strong relationships with the public and we are currently thinking through how to adapt it to suit different shapes and sizes of charities.

Where next?

There are a number of projects currently in train as a result of our on-going trust and confidence work:

  • A public facing website called ‘how charities work’ will aim to answer some of the common questions people have about charities. It will aim to provide clear, authoritative information and will be a useful place to signpost people who have questions about the way in which charities are run. Currently in development – this will be an iterative process to get it absolutely right and we will need input from across the sector.
  • A communications toolkit for charities will draw together the research insights into what the public think about charities, the narrative framework for how we can talk to the public about modern charity, and tested messages that resonate with the public in response to some of the common questions that charities face.
  • Factsheets and training for journalists will set out clear and concise information about how charities are governed, the legal and regulatory framework they operate under and crucially how to read charity accounts.  While this won’t stop negative stories, we can at least make sure any criticisms of charities are based on fact and a proper understanding of charity law and accounts.  This builds on the work we are doing through a new NCVO project – Constructive Voices – to make better connections between charities and the media and to get coverage in the mainstream news of the work that charities do.

It’s clear that there is a no single message or answer to this – trust in charities is a complex, shifting and multi-dimensional problem and no single message or action will ‘solve’ it – only a well-resourced and co-ordinated response stands any chance of success.

However we hope these projects will go some way to improving how we communicate with the public at large, show that we are taking their concerns seriously and help people understand how we work.

If anyone wants to hear more about this work or make other suggestions, either comment below or contact me on chloe.stables@ncvo.org.uk.


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Avatar photo Chloe Stables, External Relations Manager, reflects on the latest political developments affecting the voluntary and community sector.

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