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Populus report reveals falling public trust and confidence in charity sector

Earlier this week the Charity Commission launched a new Populus report as part of their long-running research into public trust and confidence in charities. It won’t surprise many to hear that trust in the sector has fallen significantly over the past two years – and for the first time in the decade since the research programme began.

Figure 1.1

Many commentators in the charity sector won’t be surprised to see that the public names ‘media stories’ as the main reason why their trust has dropped. The press, many in the sector argue, have deliberately and unfairly targeted charities with a stream of negative stories and this is what has adversely affected the public’s faith. This is certainly one interpretation.

Figure 1.3

But there is more to this story and this is powerfully clear from the qualitative research that the Charity Commission included as part of the project, and from statistical analysis of the survey data. Donor disillusionment appears to be rooted in more fundamental factors than the odd negative headline. In the focus groups, participants talked about the reasons why they gave to charity: supporting a friend, feeling like they made a difference, doing their bit. Recent scandals have hit at the heart of these motives. Financial scandals have increased doubts about where the money goes and whether it does any good:

“I don’t know where the money’s going. I never know where any of its gone at all… and it gives me no heart to want to give if they’re not being transparent enough about it. They do [these appeals] every year and they say they raise all this money and they’re still wanting mosquito nets.”

“[Kids Company] got lots of money and went bust. They seemed to be spending money very haphazardly.”

And at the same time increased pressure to bring in donations has led charities to use techniques that undermine how ‘good’ donors feel about their donations:

“I subscribe to Save the Children. I did used to do one for deaf children, but they just kept phoning and asking for more money all the time. It was £8, and wanted me to go up to £17 a month, and they were just quite irritating.”

“When they’re phoning you up, you’re giving a little, which means a lot, but yet, they still want more. To me, that’s naughty.”

Statistical analysis of the drivers of respondents’ headline trust and confidence scores finds a similar story (see below). Confidence in the sector is powered by a range of factors that include good management, being honest and ethical, and ensuring that a reasonable proportion of donations make it to the end cause. Performance of the sector on each of these indicators has also fallen.

Effect on trust

The bad news for the sector is that these are vital foundations for the charitable giving: donors must believe that their money is doing good and that the money will make it to that cause. Once a narrative that runs counter to this has taken root, reporters are more likely to pick up on a story that reflects it; the cycle is self-perpetuating. The foundations have been cracked.

The good news is two-fold: firstly, the public wants to trust charities. When asked how important a role they think charities play in society today, 93% of the public think that charities play a role of either fair, very, or essential importance. Second, (and unlike the news coverage) the drivers of trust and confidence are within the control of individual charities. Trust is fuelled by showing the public what charities achieve, the difference that they make sin communities every day. Impact assessment, previously seen as a ‘nice to have’, or something that happened on big government programmes is going to be our greatest asset in the coming years.

The charities that prosper in this new world will be the ones that can harness the new tools offered by social media to create a virtuous cycle which feeds back evidence of impact to the very supporters whose donations enable their work. This will make donors feel special, prove the link between donations and impact, and justify the way in which charities work. It is an ambitious goal but one worth pursuing.

Want to find out more? Why not take a look at the full report and data tables, available HERE

Or check out an infographic summarising the research HERE

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