Trust in charities hasn’t improved – what can we do?

As far back as April, the Charity Commission was warning of the sorry findings of the latest round of their biennial survey on the public’s trust in charities. When they finally unveiled it a couple of weeks ago, the rather underwhelming headline result was that the level of public trust in charities had shifted not one measurable iota from their previous survey in 2016.

This fact, of course, left the Commission in need of a fresh angle.

‘The man or woman in the street’

Hence we have the Commission’s new line that the public ‘now trust charities less than they trust the average person in the street’. When asked how much they trust charities out of ten, the public give an average answer of 5.5. Which the Commission says is, accounting for methodological differences, indiscernible from the answer of 5.7 they gave in 2016. But in good news for those looking for new, snappy press lines, it’s below the level of trust they say they give the man or woman in the street (this isn’t actually novel, but set that aside for a moment).

Graph showing trust in charities compared to other sectors from the Charity Commission 2018 public trust and confidence research. Out of ten. Doctors 7.4, police 6.4, Man in the street 5.7, Charities 5.5, Social Services 5.3, Private companies 5.0, Banks 4.9, Your local council 4.8, Newspapers 3.9, Government ministers 3.7, MPs 3.6

Our colleagues at Acevo have criticised the Commission for putting a negative slant on this figure, which they point out actually compares well to many other sectors. Acevo’s Grace Freeman also noted that comparing charities with pedestrians is, ‘a good headline but not a strong argument’, saying it’s not legitimate to compare personal and organisational relationships, to which I think there’s some truth (I also think we should stop talking down the man or woman in the street and be pleased about the UK’s decent levels of interpersonal trust, but that’s for another blog).

We’re not ok

But, even if being better regarded than banks or local councils were to be any great cause for celebration, there remains a glaring issue. Go back to the equivalent research in 2012 or 2014 and charities were getting a strong 6.7 out of 10. We’ve fallen a long way in a short space of time, as this graph from the 2016 research makes clear by way of a big purple arrow on the right:

Graph from Charity Commission's 2016 public trust and confidence research showing fall in trust in charities compared to other sectors

It’s a very significant fall from which we clearly haven’t recovered. So, negative as the news may be, it’s news we need to hear.

(Keen graph readers will have noted that charities were also outpaced by the man or woman in the street in 2016. As I said, this isn’t a novelty for 2018, though no one, least of all any news editors, seemed to have noticed that.)

It’s worth noting that the fieldwork for this research took place while international development sexual abuse scandals were in the news. Perhaps we should be surprised or relieved that the fall wasn’t greater. Alternatively, perhaps we would have seen a recovery if it weren’t for this. We don’t know. In either case, there’s work to do.

And there’s a delicate balance for the Commission in presenting these findings. They can’t appear complacent about flat-lining public trust when their role is to increase it. There’s doubtless something of a perception hangover for them from their previous chair under whose tenure they at times appeared rather too eager to criticise. But in fairness, I think these latest figures were presented in a broadly balanced and constructive way.

Give me all the pies

Beyond the headline numbers there are some useful insights in the research. I particularly like this experiment they carried out (click the image to open full size):

Image from Charity Commission 2018 public trust and confidence research showing factors that make a charity seem trustworthy including having impact data, spending breakdown, and being regulated

In short, the Commission’s researchers found that showing details about regulation, impact and spending increase people’s level of trust in a fictional charity.

As it turns out, much as we might like a silver bullet for trust (and it’s definitely not blockchain), the prosaic reality is that showing you work to high standards and that you care about keeping donors informed seems to do quite a lot of the job.

The Commission’s experiment echoes what we’ve heard from the public focus groups we’ve run: people are really, really eager to get some sort of simple measure of spending or impact.

Of course, neither accounting nor life in general greatly lend themselves to simple measures, and I know that talk of pie charts and ratios sets off alarm bells for some. Different methods tend to flatter different sorts of charities and unfairly disadvantage others. You can make a pie chart say more or less anything you want depending on how you slice your spending, prompting concerns that it could create a sort of race to the bottom on claims about overheads and so on. And there are no universal measures to demonstrate effectiveness. But I don’t think people are looking for perfection here: they’re not looking to audit you, they just want to know you care.

As Baroness Stowell put it in publishing the most recent research, calls for transparency are ‘proxy for a more profound issue: the public want evidence that charities are what they say they are’.

Few will be swayed by whether your governance costs are 8% or 12%, or exactly what you’re including in that category. People decide to trust on a more instinctive level than that. One of the ways to demonstrate trustworthiness and appeal to that instinctive level is to show you understand what people want. Having the figures there shows you understand they’re concerned about what you do with their money. The numbers themselves, within reason, don’t matter, it’s the fact that they’re there that matters.

Lots of charities already do this well. My inclination is that provided the categories and explanation are sensible – no ‘99% frontline work, only 1% overheads’ nonsense – then this is a good thing. We don’t need to come up with some impossible universal standard to fit and compare all charities.

Show don’t tell

‘This is not about explaining better, this is about being better’, Baroness Stowell said of the challenge of increasing public trust.

Few things in life are straightforward. The fundraising scandals we saw three years ago boiled down to what in some respects is an ethical dilemma: how hard should you press a potential donor in order to raise money for a good cause.

The reality is that what charities were doing was not in step with what the public, quite reasonably, expected of them. And no amount of even the best communications can be a sticking plaster for a fundamental problem within a charity or charities.

(That said, we can and should also explain better, because sometimes we’re not even talking in a way the public understand. That’s why we published Telling a better story about charities last year. It’s well worth a look if you have any role in communicating the work of your charity.)

Often there is no one right answer to the dilemmas we face. What’s important though is that we put the spotlight on the importance of examining the ethical considerations involved. That’s what NCVO is hoping to do with its new code of ethics, which aims to be the sector’s equivalent of the Nolan principles for public life. We want to encourage a renewed focus on ethical questions in charities and provide a tool to help frame decisions. This, we hope, will lead to stronger decision-making, organisations demonstrably acting in an ethical manner, and increased trust.

Consultation on the code is open now – please do get involved. If you’re reading this, you probably work or volunteer for a charity. We want to hear from you – whatever your position in your organisation, because we all have a stake in this.


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Avatar photo 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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