Research recently published by global communications marketing firm Edelman seems to contradict the findings from our research last autumn which indicated that trust in charities was at the highest level since 2013. Why the disparity between their research and ours? Here are ten things to consider when interpreting statistics on trust in charities and other bodies, with a focus on understanding the UK sector and different factors impacting on the public's trust.
1. Edelman found trust in NGOs the highest of any sector
Edelman recently released their most recent Trust Barometer for 2017. It found that NGOs have a higher trust rating than any of the other sectors they measure – government, business and the media – both globally and in the UK. The headlines, however, were grabbed by a steep decline in trust in NGOs, with the news that trust is down 18 percentage points from November 2015 to November 2016. All other sectors also saw declines in trust.
2. Edelman trust research differs significantly from other research
The Edelman research works in a different way from other trust research. Firstly it asks about ‘NGOs’, not charities, which is probably a less familiar term and tends to mean overseas development charities in the UK at least. It also focuses on just four sectors: business, government, NGOs and the media, compared to the 30 or so institutions that our research asks about. The question is do you trust xxx ‘to do the right thing’, which is different from asking about trust generally. It’s also worth pointing out that in their recent poll all sectors dropped a fair amount, and that their fieldwork took place just before and after the US election on November 8th. So Trump alone might account for a fall in trust!
3. Armed forces, schools and the NHS are universally trusted
Our research shows that the NHS (70% trust it a great deal or quite a lot) Armed Forces (69%), and schools (60%) are the most trusted public institutions, and fairly consistently so. Charities are just behind these. A similar pattern is to be found in Ipsos MORI’s research on professions, which names doctors, teachers and judges as the three most trusted professions (they don’t ask about anybody from the military).
4. Politicians and the media are universally less trusted
Guess what – those lovely people who tell charities they need to sort their trust out are among the least trusted in society. Our research shows that political parties are trusted by 13%, and government and newspapers by 21%. The MORI professions research also puts politicians, government ministers and journalists in the bottom four, with trust levels of under 25%. The fourth profession in the bottom four? Estate agents.
5. Younger people trust charities more than older people
As a general rule, men and women tend to trust charities fairly equally, and trust is only marginally greater among higher social classes than lower ones. The biggest demographic difference in trust is between the young and the old. Younger people (under 35s) tend to trust charities more than older people (over 45s); however, trust evened out fairly strongly between age groups in our latest research.
6. Trust in charities is volatile – unlike some other institutions
Trust in charities tends to be volatile. In the five years between 2010 and 2015, trust in charities saw a range of 23% percentage points (70% to 47%). Banks are also volatile: there was a low of 12% in 2009 and a high of 33% in 2015. By contrast, organisations like the NHS and the Church see much smaller variations (about 8 percentage points in roughly the same period), despite the fact that neither institution has been free from scandal or public scrutiny. The reasons for these differences in volatility are not clear.
7. Changes in trust have at least three drivers of change
Changes in trust for any institution can probably be attributed to three drivers (though this is harder to prove in research terms). The first is what an institution does; the scandal around fundraising practices is a classic example of a driver of change for institutions who fundraise. The second is what a member of that institution does – when the Kids Co. scandal blew up, it rubbed off on the wider charity sector. The third is what other institutions are doing. With this in mind, we have a theory at nfpSynergy that the increase in trust in charities – from its low of 42% in 2007 to its high in 2010 – is probably because banks, business and government have done such a good job of screwing things up. Thus, people trusted charities more, because other institutions have let them down.
8. Trust and confidence – we’re not confident there is much difference
We tend to lump trust and confidence together in a single phrase. The difference between the two is not very clear (trust is usually the more generic sentiment, confidence the more specific). Perhaps it is more important that we’ve seen very little insight which gives advice on changing one rather than the other. If the two are always lumped together, perhaps we should just talk about trust.
9. We don’t know what trust influences
Everybody tends to talk about trust as if a rise in trust is always a good thing, and a drop a bad thing. While rationally this would make sense, it’s worth pointing out that we have no evidence that rising levels of trust lead to rising levels of more tangible benefits for charities, such as giving or volunteering. The sector needs to be careful about focusing too specifically on trust as if it were an end in itself. It isn’t.
10. We need other measures of the health of charities
Following on from the previous point, alongside trust we need other measures of the health of the sector. For instance, the growth in income of different sizes of charities, levels of individual giving and volunteering, the number of new charities, and (perhaps most difficult of all) the differences that charities make.