Charities – the value of reputation and trust

In a new report published today, the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee have called for charity trustees to effectively take ownership of good governance, following its inquiry into fundraising in the charitable sector. The report highlights an opportunity for public relations knowledge, advice and support to take a leading, strategic, and defining role across the sector.

The report says that ultimate responsibility for every aspect of governance and sustainability of charities, including, but not limited to, fundraising, rests with trustees. The Committee says if the trustees in the sector fail to put their house in order, statutory regulation must follow.

Despite this, the Committee also states that:

“… Stronger regulation is no substitute for the required change of attitudes and behaviour from trustees. Reinstating and maintaining public trust in charity fundraising is critical for the sector. Trustees must accept this in full and demonstrate it in changed attitudes and behaviour.”

Charities rely on public confidence and trust to carry out their work; no-one would want to give money if they believe funds will be diverted to fraudulent or suspect operators, rather the causes they support. This where public relations should play a leading role.

The evidence to invest in public relations is also there to back this up. The public now attach greater importance to good financial management by charities. Almost half of people cite ‘ensuring a reasonable proportion of donations gets to the end cause’ as the most important factor affecting their trust in charities, according to research published by Ipsos MORI on behalf of the Charity Commission in 2014. The same research also says that the public are also interested in whether charities explain what they do, with the majority of people (96%) saying that ‘it is important that charities provide the public with information about how they spend their money’.

So how should trustees take these recommendations – and this evidence – on board?

Their external facing priority should be to consistently and reliably exemplify high standards of transparency and openness in all activities, including on the ground delivery, day-to-day management (including recruitment, and pay and reward), campaigning, and fundraising. This information is often only reported once a year, in the form of an annual report. This is no longer enough. Up to date, clear and easily accessible information should be easily available to all stakeholders, including donors, and the general public.

More importantly though, on a wider organisational basis, trustees should lead on establishing and maintaining trust through applying the same rigour, values and focus that effectively delivers charitable work on the ground, to all aspects of operational activity.

Principles such as accountability, impartiality, objectivity, transparency and integrity are the key building blocks of good governance for all organisations, but even more so in a sector where the public are stumping up their hard-earned cash to causes often close to their hearts.

A consistent and vigorous implementation of these principles must first occur internally, at the individual level by trustees, staff, and the people representing the organisation publicly, before any convincing message can be communicated externally.

Leading this practical application of values can only be done by the institutionalizing of public relations and corporate communications across all areas of the business. This means a defining role at board level to not just identify, explore, define and advise, but also execute effective strategies to pro-actively tackle reputational risks or trust deficits.

For all organisations, your mission, vision and values should be used to direct all aspects of your work. It’s time for the charity sector – and the public relations leaders within it – to walk the talk.

  1. An interesting and relevant read. Of course, charities need good governance and it’s encouraging that PR has been identified as well placed to take the lead on that. But the issue for the sector, particularly for smaller charities which rely wholly on their volunteers is finding the time and resources to understand, prepare, deliver and then monitor good governance. I’m a trustee for a small charity – as well as a PR teacher and practitioner – which is ran entirely by volunteers, the majority of whom work full time. It’s often even a challenge to find the time to prepare an agenda, let alone put in place all the policies, procedures and guidelines that would help improve trust and reputation both internally and externally. But we strive because we believe in our charity – I just wish we had the resources to be able to employ someone even part-time to help with governance and all the other day to day jobs that need to be taken care of. Nevertheless, I will be arming myself with this feature at our next committee meeting at the weekend – and probably land myself with more responsibilities!

    1. Jonathan, I too am a Trustee of a small charity and echo your sentiments. I am currently chairing a sub-group to look at fundraising. Transparency and the importance of regular and relevant communication is a priority.

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