Charities must not ‘roll over’ in the face of a decline in public trust

By Shimon Cohen, Chairman, The PR Office,

It’s high time that the charity sector got a grip on the well-publicised issues that have prompted a decline in public trust.

This month, a report conducted by the Charity Aid Foundation (CAF) came to some bleak conclusions on charitable donations. According to the report’s findings, the percentage of people who donated to charity in the past year has dropped to 57 per cent, down from 60 per cent in 2017 and 61 per cent in 2016. Whilst this drop is by no means cataclysmic, the fact that there has been a steady decline over a period of just three years should serve as a wake-up call for the charity sector.

From questions about how charities raise and spend money, to well-publicised scandals surrounding the safeguarding of staff and beneficiaries, charities are under unparalleled scrutiny from both the general public and the media and our community is by no means exempt.

Given this, some decline in public trust in charities is not unexpected.

In 2018, three Oxfam staff members, including a senior official, resigned and four were sent packing after allegations emerged in 2011 that they had paid local women as sex workers whilst working in Haiti during the aftermath of an earthquake. The following year saw a series of revelations about sexual misconduct at other leading charities. Jewish charities, too, have faced their fair share of controversy and are the subject of public scrutiny.

In wider society, a decline in the numbers of people donating to charity does not mean that the UK is becoming less charitable as a whole.

As always, the picture is more complex.

There is anecdotal evidence that some charities are changing their approach to fundraising, focusing on building relationships with a smaller number of committed donors, rather than trying to draw in as many people as possible for an occasional and one-off donation.

In fact, the total income of the charity sector in England and Wales increased by £2.3bn in one year according to annual returns filed with the Charity Commission in the year to June 2018.

Nevertheless, the decline in public trust in charities is undeniable.

Last year, the Charity Commission found that the level of public trust in charities was at the lowest level since the regulator started tracking it in 2005.  Supporters and donors are asking hard questions about how charitable funds are being used and the impact they are having.

Does this mean that charity sector should roll over without a fight and accept this as another reflection of a cynical and jaded society?

Absolutely not.

This is a time for charities to be bold and assertive, not meek and timid. From small communal organisations to large charities, too few are still willing to stick their heads above the parapet and make the case for things the public might otherwise find unpalatable, such as chief executive salaries or overheads such as the costs of fundraising.

For instance, the reason why chief executives of leading charities receive a good salary is because they have responsibility for employees, volunteers and tight budgets in an increasingly threadbare funding environment.

This is a job for an experienced professional, not a good-natured enthusiast. There is often a very good reason why these things are needed – so why don’t we hear more from a sector that should be straining at the leash to make its case?

Charities need to go on the front foot and challenge misconceptions and tell a positive story about the work that they do, as well as show their commitment to ever-higher standards of operation and service delivery.

It is more important than ever for charities to promote their positive story, and comms professionals have to do what they can to step up to the challenge.

Photo by Kat Yukawa on Unsplash

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