A Question of Support; what can individual charities do to increase public trust?

When it comes to sharing the results of our research at nfpSynergy with the wider sector, we know that there is one topic that will always attract attention; trust. It’s easy to see why this matters so much for the charitable sector. Unlike most companies, charities are not selling a tangible product or service that they can judge for themselves. For the most part, donors will never see first-hand how their money is spent, so they need some sort of proxy when deciding whether to part with their cash. So how are charities doing?  And how could they do better at winning the public’s trust?

When it comes to sharing the results of our research at nfpSynergy with the wider sector, we know that there is one topic that will always attract attention; trust. It’s easy to see why this matters so much for the charitable sector. Unlike most companies, charities are not selling a tangible product or service that they can judge for themselves. For the most part, donors will never see first-hand how their money is spent, so they need some sort of proxy when deciding whether to part with their cash. So how are charities doing?  And how could they do better at winning the public’s trust?

According to results from our Charity Awareness Monitor, trust in the sector has been growing strongly since a dip in early 2011 (which we suspect may have been something to do with the language used around “The Big Society”). 66% of people now trust charities “a great deal” or “quite a lot”, up from just 53% in January 2011 and near the record high of 70% in January 2010.

This places the charitable sector among the most trusted institutions in Britain, behind only the armed forces (78%), scouts and guides (67%), and the NHS (67%) and way ahead of government (16%) and political parties (8%).  At first glance, it looks a bit rich for MPs to criticise charities and say they have a trust problem – it’s clear that charities enjoy (and always have enjoyed) far higher levels of trust than Westminster could ever aspire to. This is encouraging for charities when both they and politicians rely so heavily on trust to continue their work.

But maybe it’s not time to break out the balloons and party hats just yet. We also know that trust in charities is volatile. In many cases, it seems as though charities enjoy a boost in trust when trust in other institutions drops. Instead of being masters of their own destiny, charities are a passive default option for trust.

So how can charities take charge of their fate and talk about public trust on their own terms? Again, our research provides some clues. ‘High standards in fundraising’ continually tops ‘why do you trust charities?’ list, with 50% of people selecting it. Other research shows that this is related to perceptions of how much money is spent on ‘the cause’. Of course, this is a subject that lots of charities have tried to deal with, for example by putting pie charts of fundraising and admin costs on their printed material, or through headline statistics such as Oxfam’s “84p of every pound goes directly to emergency, development and campaigning work”.

Nevertheless, the message has yet to get through to the public. In our most recent survey, respondents thought that the average charity spends 36% of income on administration and another 25% on fundraising. Most charities will see immediately that not only are they performing better than that, they are actually doing better than the public say is their ideal for charities – 16% on administration and another 22% on fundraising.

So the average punter is still severely misinformed about charitable spending and it seems as though more drastic measures will have to be taken to get the story straight. It may well be that this is best addressed as part of a sector-wide strategy to communicate effectively on issues of trust. But what is that you can do to help your organisation build its trust levels?

Demonstrating your impact is obviously important – 25% say not knowing what a charity does puts them off giving. But often the ways in which big charities convey impact leave a lot to be desired. Weighty impact reports might be invaluable for trust fundraisers talking to major grant-makers, but they are completely inappropriate as a way of talking to a mass audience. Car manufacturers don’t invite potential customers to look at hundreds of pages of technical specifications and safety tests on their websites to convince them to buy the car. Why should charities do the same when talking to donors?

Reducing details of your impact to clear communications of one or two sentences and a few statistics is far more likely to hit home with a donor than a 300 page impact report. Our founder, Joe Saxton, recently raised a few eyebrows with a suggestion that impact reports should be replaced by tweets, but the principle is the same; don’t assume an endless attention span on behalf of donors.

It’s also clear that staff pay is another topic of concern for donors. 51% of respondents recently said that they’d be reassured a donation would be spent well if no one in the organisation was paid over £50,000 a year. Past research has indicated that people think a charity chief executive should be earning about £52,000 a year, while they believe the average CEO actually earns a little over £75,000.

For some organisations, this will pose a difficulty as their CEO will earn more than what the public think is acceptable and indeed more than what they think is the average. For these charities, it is about facing up to the problem of perception, rather than hiding away and hoping no one finds out. Explain to the public why you need to pay those salaries to get the right people. Explain that you are a large organisation doing great work all around the country (or even the world) and that you need dedicated leadership to run such a complex charity.

For organisations of all sizes it can be helpful to emphasise your volunteers. The British Red Cross has ten times as many volunteers as paid staff and makes a big deal out of this in its communications. Similarly, the RNLI focuses on its volunteers in its materials, not the people they actually help. This works well with donors – knowing that an organisation has such a large pool of enthusiastic and passionate supporters willing to give their time for free is a good enough sign for many people to trust that charity. Empirically, our research shows that 55% of the public say they would feel more confident about giving to a charity that was run mostly by volunteers.

Regulation and codes of practice are another area where charities can have an easy win. Looking again at the importance of high standards in fundraising as a driver of trust for individual charities, we know that for 57% of our respondents this means “following strict codes of practice for high standards in fundraising”.

Practically all national charities will be signed up to the Institute of Fundraising Codes of Practice, so why not tell your donors? A simple start would be just to say that you are regulated by the Charity Commission in all of your communications. For most charities, there are probably another 5-10 regulators you could add to mailing letters to drive the point home. 

So these are some simple, evidence-driven tips for improving trust in your organisation:

  • talk about your impact in ways that people will read
  • be honest with donors
  • emphasise the passion and drive of your volunteers
  • wear your regulation proudly.

But beyond this, we know that there is much more to be done as a sector to secure public trust for the years to come. To find out more about what we’re doing, take a look at our website (nfpSynergy.net) where you can find our strategy for building trust and confidence in the sector.

 

Do you believe in this? Or donor you think we got it right? Leave us a comment below.

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