New research has revealed that a third of the public say their views towards charities have become more positive in the last three years, compared with a quarter who are now more negative.
This is despite recent high profile negative press coverage about the charity sector.
However, the authors of a briefing paper on the research, New Philanthropy Capital (NPC), have warned charities not to be complacent and to find ways to address concerns held by the public.
Mind the gap, based on polling conducted on behalf of NPC by Ipsos MORI, was undertaken to explore whether the recent ongoing attacks on charities from politicians and the media on issues including lobbying and excessive levels of CEO pay, coupled with coverage of the Cup Trust and Comic Relief’s ethical investments, had adversely affected the public’s attitude to the sector.
The top five concerns were that charities spend too much on executive salaries (42%), are not transparent enough about how they are spending their money (36%), spend too much abroad (29%), put pressure on people to donate (29%) and spend too much on running costs (26%).
Three fifths of respondents (58%) thought that charity CEOs should earn less than an MP, with 16% thinking that CEOs should not be paid at all.
However, only around one in ten (11%) were unhappy about spending on employees’ salaries suggesting that the public are mainly concerned with pay at the higher end.
The research also revealed an important gap between what the public think charities should be doing compared to what they think they actually do.
Over half thought that charities should be helping communities but just 35% think they spend their time doing this.
Some 48% say they pay attention to evidence that an organisation is having an impact when making a donation although 50% pay little attention or none at all. In fact, around one in ten people (9%) say that they pay extremely close attention.
One of the reasons for these findings could be that the public do not really understand what charities - or their leaders - actually do.
NPC chief executive, Dan Corry, says that charities have a role to play in bridging this gap in perception with their own supporters by explaining their role and why they take the decisions that they do: "For example, charity boards should be more vocal about the principles on which they have based a CEO’s pay, a perspective that was largely missing from the recent debate.
"Indeed all of those who work for charities in the UK have a role to play in building the reputation of the sector and countering misperceptions."
NPC also argues that the sector needs to come up with a joint strategy to talk to the public about its changing role and to respond more comprehensively to criticism.
Corry added: "Not all charities are perfect and the sector must be open about this, but many of the comments made about the sector are unfair and misleading.
"If the sector can work together, it will be in a stronger position to withstand any erosion of trust it might yet suffer should the attacks by the press and MPs continue."
Commenting on the release of the survey, Asheem Singh, director of Public Policy at ACEVO, said: "Charities and social enterprises need to be relentless in their drive to demonstrate value for money. We know how big our contribution is to society and the economy but that message is still only partially getting through.
"The sector is buzzing with solutions. ACEVO's Good Pay Guide is the leading publication on setting CEO pay and our work with NPC on inspiring impact is about creating tools to get the sector where we need to be - demanding and demonstrating the highest standards for donors and beneficiaries.
"The big story in NPC's research is that public attitudes to charities generally remain in stasis.
"Support and trust are slowly going up, but 42 per cent of those polled have not changed their opinion on the sector, positively or negatively, in the last 3 years.
"This shows we cannot be wallflowers; we need to be more vocal about what we do, how we do it, and the extent to which we contribute to society.
"With just over a year to go before the election, we must ensure that our sector and the concerns of our beneficiaries are high up the political and public agenda.”