Sentiments of cynical donors in a post-truth society

We recently held focus groups comprised of donors across a range of ages. They discussed issues including trust in charities and perceptions of our sector. Discover what they thought and how it could impact your charity.
Jo Fischl

With prevalent discussions of fake news and regular dispute over the accuracy of claims made by those in politics following the Brexit vote and election of Trump, it would be unsurprising for the public to feel wary of which organisations and people to trust - even when it comes to the charities they support.

Positively, as we reported recently, trust in charities has seen a substantial recovery in the past year after a tough time in 2015. From a low of 47% (trusting quite a lot or a great deal) in October 2015, trust now stands at a relatively healthy 60% (October 2016). However, this figure only gives us so much information – as researchers, alongside making sure we have the latest stats, we also need to dig into the detail and investigate further with qualitative research (focus groups and interviews). In late Autumn 2016, we did just that.

We spoke to charity donors ranging across different ages in three London based focus groups on issues including trust in charities, perceptions of our sector amongst society’s other institutions, and who the public want to hear from when it comes to charities and the work they do. This all took place in the context of changing political and media debates.

The full report ‘The Seven Sentiments of Cynical Donors’ will be released to Charity Awareness Monitor clients at the end of this week, and to our newsletter readers next month. In the meantime, here are some of our key observations:

We found that donors were highly cynical about many kinds of institutions, and there was a general feeling that the mood of the moment was one of mistrust – as one older male participant noted, he felt “very, very sceptical about everything at the moment”. However, with this context in mind, a real positive was that charities are currently relatively well perceived in comparison to other institutions. In an environment where the meaning behind what is said is increasingly in question, the moral imperative underlying the operation of charities seemed to be a protective factor:

“I would say I trust charities more because I want to emotionally, and because I imagine that people who go and work there have got a certain amount of, kind of passion and they get corrupted more slowly than in other institutions.” 

Female, 55+

In light of 2016 (and particularly Brexit related) discussions of the ‘end of experts’ we also wanted to ask donors about levels of trust and interest in the views of various people who might be seen as experts in their field. In general, we found that contrary to claims, there is still receptivity towards many experts, with healthcare professionals and scientists the most respected, the rationalisation being that they were least likely to have a personal agenda to promote. Journalists and politicians were the least trusted, whilst people running well-known charities sat somewhere in the middle of the scale for the majority of respondents, generating mixed views. Delving deeper into the various roles within charities, we found a clear distinction in trust for most people between charity management and frontline staff – highlighting a significant struggle that remains for the sector in justifying to the public the value provided by charity CEOs.

“I think the people at the bottom, on the front line actually often tend to know a lot more than the people at the top in the ivory tower.”

Female, 20 – 34

On the one hand, this demonstrates the need to better communicate the role of CEOs, whilst on the other this can be seen as an opportunity for comms professionals due to the strong positivity which donors expressed towards hearing the views of frontline staff.

In a climate of mistrust, those seen as working on the ground provide valued spokespeople for charities and, interestingly, positive perceptions of the work of frontline staff actually seemed to have the power to override the areas of charity operations which the public has concerns about, such as certain types of fundraising. As one male participant phrased it, “the way that it (money) is collected in the street here I don’t like, but what they’re doing on the ground I totally admire.”

Finally, the importance of giving a voice to your beneficiaries also emerged strongly. Whilst our donors were still keen to hear from experts – particularly those who are specialists in a field such as medicine – they also wanted a range of perspectives. The opportunity to hear from those supported by charities directly seemed to have a positive role in generating trust in the organisation. Beneficiaries could give a more direct and unembellished view.

 “After the charity has helped the person I would like to hear from the actual person himself and see what his thoughts and feelings were and how the process went…because from hearing from the person you can sort of get a jist of whether they are sort of exaggerating the story a bit or not?”

Male, 20 – 34

At a time when societal trust in high profile figures is unstable, there may be a real opportunity and even a responsibility here for charities. Charities can play a positive role in giving a voice to those that don’t always get heard – and, at the same time, they can shore up trust by allowing their donors to hear directly from these genuine voices.

If you’d like to find out more about how focus groups and other kinds of qualitative research can help you dig deeper and uncover insight for your charity and the issues you work on, please get in touch.
If you’re already taking part in our tracking research, for example through the Charity Awareness Monitor, we can also provide qualitative add-ons; a great way to explore the issues emerging from your tracking research in more depth.

For more information, contact Jo Fischl on 020 7426 8878. 

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