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What does declining trust mean for my charity?

Earlier this month we released results which showed a marked decline in public trust in the charity sector as a whole between April and October 2015.

Earlier this month we released results which showed a marked decline in public trust in the charity sector as a whole between April and October 2015. With charities still reeling from the media attacks of the summer, these results appeared to confirm that the stories in the press were having a very real impact on how the public view charities. What’s more, the results were the continuation of a longer term trend of declining trust in charities that can be tracked back more than two years.

So far, so bad. But the question we’re often asked, is “what does this actually mean for my charity?” As part of our Charity Awareness Monitor, our perceptions tracker for charities and non-profits, we not only explore trust in the sector as a whole, but also for individual charity brands. We see significant variation in trust scores between charities – the way the public view and respond to your brand is a vital part of trust.

We also see variation between sectors – for instance, the average levels of trust (those who trust brands quite a lot or a great deal) in international development charities is currently nine percentage points lower than the average for charities working in the cancer sector (72%). One reason for this could be the corruption angle - we know from our research that the international development sector suffers from negative assumptions about where the money ends up. However, there is also significant variation between charities within this group. So although generalised views of your sector play a role, how the public views your charity and how it operates have consequences for trust that shouldn’t be underestimated.

In a time of high concern about the state of the third sector and what we can expect in the months and years ahead, it is more important than ever to understand the context you’re working in, keep a close eye on trends, and benchmark yourself against (and learn from) others in the area you operate in as well as the wider sector. Key metrics and trends to watch include:

  • The strength of your brand and how it compares to others: We have developed a Brand Benchmark which ranks charities against the average on a number of metrics, from simple awareness (both top of mind and prompted) through to trust and support. Having a single measure which amalgamates these key metrics gives a clear and easily trackable idea of how your brand is faring – and where threats and weaknesses lie.
  • Sentiment towards your cause: Understanding how the public perceive your area of work is vital in knowing how to communicate with the public and get your messages across. Ultimately, appealing to the public and ensuring they understand the value of your work will put your charity in a stronger position when it comes to maintaining public confidence.
  • Oversight of the sector: Many factors feed into a person’s trust of the charity sector – you are not operating in a vacuum. We understand what facets make up public concern and what’s driving the decline. We also continuously explore concerns the public have about charities and what charities can do to reassure them. With a strong picture of the way the wind is blowing when it comes to public opinion, you’ll be better prepared to know how to respond to reassure the public and weather the storm if you do face criticism.

It’s undeniably a tough time for the sector as a whole – and there are varying predictions on what will happen to trust next. My own prediction? I think the next move of the media is crucial – without any more headlines, I would put money on a gradual improvement in public trust. However, our research with journalists suggests the media has not finished with charities yet; 70% of our sample of journalists believe there will be more critical media coverage of charities in the future. More media scrutiny means it is more important than ever to not only show yourself to be squeaky clean but also to create a strong brand which is resilient to the kinds of attacks we saw in the summer. Understanding where you stand on the public radar, how you are perceived against others and how you fit into the broader charity narrative is an essential element in achieving this goal. 

Jo Fischl


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