Hairdressers: a cut above charities?

News reached us yesterday that ‘charities are half as trusted as hairdressers’. Such is the headline result of a survey carried out by Pro Bono Economics, a not-for-profit economics consultancy. Given all that follows I should put on record now that I have a lot of time for Pro Bono Economics, who do some excellent work.

Anyway, as they usually do in surveys of public trust, hairdressers come out well here (1). They’re up there with doctors and scientists. Charities come out less well, somewhere between news readers and clergy. Why we’re comparing individuals and organisations in the same poll, I don’t know. But put that aside for a moment.

The conclusion that Pro Bono Economics draw from their survey is that: ‘The only way for charities to rebuild any trust they have lost is to demonstrate their impact on society with solid independent economic evidence.’ (My emphasis.)

It is not clear how they have come to this assessment. Other perhaps than the old adage that when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. When you’re an economist, maybe you believe everything can be solved with a spreadsheet.

There are (at least) two issues here:

Firstly, we have no way of knowing from this single survey whether the trust gap between charities and hairdressers is increasing or decreasing, so for all we know from it, charities could be on course to overtake hairdressers next year. More generally, this is one of a number of surveys that purport to statistically measure trust in charities. These are helpful but only in the broadest terms. Their results are often somewhat variegated, and it seems it can be irresistible to over-interpret changes which may or may not be meaningful (‘we’ve gone from 5.7 to 6.1, it’s all ok again!’).

Secondly, and crucially, the survey tells us nothing about how to rebuild trust in charities, let alone enough to give us reason to believe that ‘use economic impact evidence’ is the correct solution. A more straightforward inference would be that charities could boost trust in their brands by offering beauty services.

‘Use data to rebuild trust’

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for charities demonstrating their impact. But the notion that running up to people and showing them your ‘solid independent economic evidence’ will win them over is, at best, a leap of faith. At worst it could be counterproductive.

Do we trust hairdressers, police officers, or doctors because they have demonstrated their impact on society with solid independent economic evidence? Maybe economists do. But most people? I don’t think so. And will showing them statistics about your efficiency win over the 28% of people who say they are suspicious of or distrustful of charities? I’d suggest the return on investment in that would be low.

There is a significant amount of evidence to suggest that presenting people with data does not change their minds. (I am aware that this is in itself a data point, and may not change your mind. Please disregard this meta issue for now.) In short, people pick the data they like, which confirms their opinions, and disregard or dispute that which they dislike.

Our research found that while the public were interested in having a small number of simple, accessible metrics for a charity’s performance (‘we spend 80p in every pound…’, etc.), they are broadly suspicious of statistics produced by any organisation for its own ends.

For better or worse, humans aren’t entirely rational. To really change minds, you have to make people feel differently about something. A memorable story will do far more here than an austere statistic.

Data is not enough in itself, and it certainly isn’t ‘the only way for charities to rebuild any trust they have lost’. You can see that it’s an absurd notion if you think about it. If your organisation were taking part in some sharp practice, no amount of data on how efficient your outcomes were would earn you any trust.

Some numbers might convince an objective economist. But as far as the public are concerned, the ways to increase trust are by acting with integrity, and communicating in compelling, human language.

It’s worth noting that according to the poll, economists are half as trusted as charities. That Pro Bono Economics included their own profession in the survey and published the less-than-flattering result tells us that they have both integrity and a sense of humour. But the result also suggests that economists may not be the best people to take advice on public trust from.

And frankly, if all the economic claims I had read from every organisation which started ‘for every £1 invested in [our thing], we generate X times this’ were true, the UK economy would be worth nearly a billion zillion pounds.

No shortcut to trust

I’m glad that talk about trust is now so mainstream in the sector. It was not previously, and this is a welcome change. I hope however that it doesn’t become simply a peg on which anyone can hang their own solution, although I fear this is beginning to happen. If you’re an economist, the solution is economic evidence. If you’re PwC, the way for charities to build trust is to use the ‘PwC Trustworthy Organisation Model’, a baffling set of concentric circles that you can pay PwC to demystify for you. If you’re the corporate affairs agency which emailed me the other day, the solution is to commission them ‘to help you drill down and understand whether your messages are aligned to the emerging media narrative’.

Worthwhile as any of these things may be, we mustn’t pretend that they represent a solution. The only way to consistently improve trust in the sector is for it genuinely to act with integrity and be seen to do so. There is no shortcut to trust.


1) Why were hairdressers included in this poll? Well, I don’t know for sure, but they’ve appeared previously in Ipsos Mori’s trust in professions poll and have come out well. So you know that if you want to guarantee a ‘surprising’ contrast with charities, you might profitably include them in your list. Builders, on the other hand, fare rather poorly in Ipsos Mori’s poll, and wouldn’t be worth including. Why we have such faith in hairdressers is another question. Here’s what a hairdresser has to say on the matter.

There are questions to be asked about why we might (be assumed to) be surprised that hairdressers are trusted, but that’s stretching the scope of this blog too far. NCVO’s web team get agitated by footnotes in blogs as it is, and a footnote to a footnote would really be pushing my luck.

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Aidan Warner is NCVO’s communications 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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