Trust in who? Where is the charity sector with trust and why does it matter?

The public want to trust charities, what puts them off?

At nfpSynergy we published our six-monthly data on trust in charities this week. Last week the Charity Commission published their ‘every other year’ research on the same topic. Our research showed a significant increase in trust since the nadir of last autumn. But what else do we now know about the dynamics of trust and charities?

The public want to trust charities

The fact that trust in charities has risen by 7 percentage points, from 48% to 55% of the public (saying they trust charities a great deal or quite a lot), suggests that the public inherently want to trust charities; once the stories about charities are out of the media spotlight trust springs back. This is good news in the short term, but is no long term panacea.

Trust in charities is volatile, unlike trust in the NHS or Armed Forces

Our data on trust in a range of public institutions shows that while trust in some is high and very stable, such as the NHS or the Armed Forces, in others it is low and stable, for example newspapers or the church. The interesting group is those where trust is volatile: this includes banks, the BBC and crucially charities. Trust in the sector cannot be taken for granted.

Thankfully trust in individual charities appear intact

The good news that became apparent from our research with the public is that trust in individual charities does not appear to have suffered in the same way that trust in charities generically has done. This evidence is also backed up by the more anecdotal feedback that there has been no wave of charities who have seen a sustained drop in donated income from individuals over the last year. This is probably because no individual charity has been especially singled out for its poor fundraising activities: it’s been a plague on all our houses.

Trust in charities is higher in the devolved nations, and in smaller charities

Our research with samples of 800 or 1000 people in Scotland and Northern Ireland shows that trust in the devolved nations tends to be higher than in the UK as a whole by a factor of 5-10 percentage points. The caveat to this is that while our research is within the last 12 months, it isn’t all undertaken in the same month.

There is no evidence that trust in charities and giving are related

Perhaps one of the most important points to make is that everybody (eg the Etherington review or the Charity Commission) is using trust as a proxy for the health of the public in their attitudes towards charities. It stands to reason that higher trust is a good thing. However it should be said that I am not aware of any evidence that actually shows a relation between macro-trust (ie of the public in charities generally) and giving. The kind of evidence that would be needed to indicate a relationship between the two would show that as trust rose or fell, giving rose or fell. The lack of this evidence is surprising: both because of the importance placed on trust, and because of the battering that charities have taken over the last 12 months.

We need additional metrics by which to measure the health of the sector

Given what I previously mentioned regarding the lack of relation between trust and giving, we do need to find additional measures for the health of the sector. Trust is important, but using that alone is like a doctor measuring health with only one diagnostic tool for all ills. We desperately need additional measures by which to measure the health of the sector; levels of income from government, individuals and companies are potential measures. Levels of volunteering, number of applicants for each paid post, and ease of recruiting new trustees could also be relevant.

We need the Charity Commission to come off the bench

The Charity Commission has a statutory duty to improve trust and confidence in charities. Yet its approach to building trust seems to be an expensive exercise in research every other year, and getting on with the day to day job of regulation. I am sure they would argue that good regulation increases trust, and that is true. But as their own research shows, trust is dependent on far more than just regulation. We need the Commission to take an active role in all aspects of building trust, not just those that come from the job of regulation itself.

The Commission should lead a cross-sector working group to build trust in charities

So we need the Commission to pull together and chair a cross-sector working group to ensure that no stone is left unturned in building trust. The group would include fundraisers and communicators, CEOs, trustees, both big and small charities, English and Welsh representatives, and pull together a plan building on all the knowledge of how to increase trust (and other metrics of charity sector health).

Please don’t get me wrong. Trust is important for charities, but we shouldn’t rely on this measure alone to monitor the health of the sector, and we should have a more co-ordinated strategy for building trust in charities.

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