In Charities we Trust (just not as much as we used to)

Published on 17 October 2018

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In the latest Charity Commission (CC) News, published on 3 October, there is again reference to their latest research about trust in charities that was conducted in July (https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/trust-in-charities-2018). It seems to be a topic that the CC is keen to deal with, but is it something that charities are really able to control? The last two times the trust survey took place a scandal had just taken place by one charity or another that impacted the sector as a whole, so individually, charities are at the mercy of those in the sector with them. It’s a harsh reality, but it’s one that charities have to face.

Lots of recent articles and literature in the charity sector mention a “collective responsibility” and that the “sector as a whole” must deal with this issue, but what does that actually mean? Can the onus really be placed mainly on charities to raise their standards and restore public trust or is it down to the regulators to get a better grasp on the sector? The truth is, there needs to be a bit of both.

One of the key findings in the report, unsurprisingly, is that when charities are able to show most of their donations directly reach the end cause, there is a positive effect on trust. This is partly down to how donors’ behaviour has evolved. Gone are the days when donors simply donate to get that warm fuzzy feeling inside and that’s the end of the transaction. They want something in return, some visible change, or perhaps a promise that their money will find the end cause. Donations are now much like any other commercial transaction in this respect; you wouldn’t go into a supermarket and hand over your money simply in hope that you might get some groceries at the end of the transaction. So consider, what is your charity giving back to your donors, what do they actually get when they give money to your charity? Don’t be afraid to stress the need for infrastructure, including staff to be able to deliver the service effectively and in the beneficiaries best interest.

Another of the key findings in the report was the importance placed on the regulator in its role of overseeing and governing the sector. As lovely as it would be to live in a world where everyone played by the rules and there were no misdemeanours, this just simply isn’t the case. There will always be cases of wrongdoing, whether they are accidental or malicious, and therefore the will always be a need for regulation. Both the public and the sector rely on the regulator to deal with those that breach trust. The public want assurance that their money will not be misspent and fellow charities do not want the reputation of the sector being tarnished by the actions of the few. In recent months we have seen the level of guidance from the CC continue to increase and there are more charity investigations being conducted on a weekly basis. In fact, the regulation of the charity sector appears to have gradually improved, so what more can they really do on their current budget restrictions?

Unfortunately one of the reasons for the waning trust in charities is a factor that is beyond the control of both the charities and the regulator, and that is the published media. There’s some irony that in the CC report newspapers rank below charities in the trust table, but they can play such a pivotal role in determining the public perception of charities. News stories that break about charities in the wrong tend to paint the whole sector in a bad light and overshadow the good work that is done by the majority. Against all of the best efforts of the sector and the regulator, it serves as a miseducation to the public about all the positives that come from the charity sector. Perhaps for the trust to improve the media should be included within the talked about “collective responsibility”. There is a positive though, no matter how bad it seems in the sector, according to the report charities are still trusted more than politicians and bankers…

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