The new chair of the Charity Commission has announced a new strategy to help the public regain trust in charities.
In her first speech as chair of the Charity Commission, Baroness Stowell of Beeston said the public trusts charities “no more than they trust the average stranger they meet on the street”.
“We have a problem”, Baroness Stowell said, in that some of the charities registered with the commission “are no longer trusted automatically by the public”.
“That means all charities can no longer expect the public to give them the benefit of the doubt,” she told delegates. “That’s not just my opinion. It’s the conclusion of extensive, independent research, the latest of which is underway right now and will be published later this year.
“I have seen some early findings. And they are sobering. They show that people now trust charities no more than they trust the average stranger they meet on the street,” she added.
“It is vital, in my view, that we understand why that is the case – and work together to change what’s gone wrong so we can put it right.”
Stowell’s comments follow a number of charity scandals that have been brought to light through intense media investigations. Notably, earlier this year saw the Oxfam Haiti sex scandal, whereby the charity was accused of ‘covering up’ for aid workers using prostitutes while working to help earthquake-hit Haiti.
It’s not the first time the sector has been rocked by reputational damage, however. In recent years, it also faced backlash for aggressive fundraising, which was highlighted in the case of Olive Cooke, an elderly poppy-seller who was thought to be bombarded by an excessive amount of charity ‘begging letters’ shortly before she took her own life.
Baroness Stowell said in order to help tackle the public’s lack of trust in charities, the Commission is now reviewing its strategy to help increase and rebuild the trust in charities “as vehicles for charitable endeavour”.
“And the way we will do that is by understanding and articulating the public interest in charity,” she told NCVO delegates.
“This is about more than careful and faithful application of charity law. It’s about setting the bar that we believe charities can be expected to reach based on what we know about the factors that drive trust.
“Because the Commission’s job is not to represent charities to the public, but to represent the public interest to you.”
Big business and politics
Stowell said the problem will need to be examined through the same lens that is used to understand the decline in trust in big business and politics.
“People clearly are less trusting of institutions and of those in positions of authority than they once were.
“The failings may manifest themselves in different ways. And in the worst cases we’ve seen people horrifically abuse and show contempt for the respected position that they hold. But whatever the failing, it adds up to people seeing and believing that those in charge of important institutions are running them in their own interests, for their own benefit.
“What we can’t escape, is that the underlying causes of public distrust are the same in the public, private and our own sector.
“Just as some big businesses have failed the reasonable expectations of the public, so have some charities. And what we need to understand is that, the expectations of you are even higher because you are charities.”