August/September 2013: In the sector we trust


When it comes to sharing the results of research we have undertaken with the wider sector, we know there is one topic that will always attract attention: trust. It’s easy to see why this matters so much to the charitable sector.

Charities rely heavily on trust when it comes to donors giving: with evidence
showing donors are concerned about the outcomes, performance and the efficiency of charities. Charities taking a different approach to impact can go some way to deal with these donor concerns. More of this later. So how are charities doing in terms of trust? And how could they do better at winning the public’s trust?

So, the good news first. According to results from nfpSynergy’s 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 per cent of people now trust charities “a great deal” or “quite a lot”, up from just 53 per cent in January 2011 and near the record high of 70 per cent in January 2010.

This places the charitable sector as one of the most trusted institutions in Britain, behind only the armed forces (78 per cent), scouts and guides (67 per cent), and the NHS (67 per cent) and way ahead of government (16 per cent) and political parties (8 per cent). So 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 doing their work.

Passive default
But maybe it’s not time to break out the balloons and party hats just yet. Trust in
charities is volatile – far more volatile than trust in say, the NHS, or indeed political parties when comparing the peaks and troughs of trust, that is, the variability of trust scores over a period of time.

In many cases, it seems as though charities enjoy a boost in trust when trust in other institutions drops. In other words, instead of being masters of their own destiny, they are a passive default option for trust.

So how can charities take charge and talk about public trust on their own terms? Looking at the reasons why people say they trust charities: high standards in fundraising has continually topped the list, with 50 per cent of the public saying this helps them trust a charity.

Other research shows that this is related to perceptions of how much money is spent directly on ‘the cause’. Of course, this is a subject that lots of charities have tried to deal with, such as by putting pie charts of fundraising and admin costs on their printed material, or through headline statistics such as Oxfam’s “84 pence 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 spent 36 per cent
of its income on administration, along with another 25 per cent on fundraising.

Most charities would hopefully recognise immediately that not only are they performing better than this, they are actually performing better than what the public say is their ideal for charities – 16 per cent on administration and another 22 per cent on fundraising.

Charitable spending
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 the impact of your organisation is obviously important – 25 per cent say that 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.

nfpSynergy’s 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.

Looking again at our research findings, it’s clear that staff pay is another topic
of concern for donors. 51 per cent 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.

Problem of perception
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. It is about explaining to the public why you need to pay the salaries you do to get the right people and explaining that you are a large organisation which does 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.

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 per cent 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. These are some simple, evidencedriven 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 and wear your regulation proudly. All-in-all, charities cannot take the trust in them for granted.

Cian Murphy is a researcher at nfpSynergy

    Share Story:

Recent Stories

How your property strategy can help beneficiaries in the long-term
In this podcast, editor Lauren Weymouth is joined by Jonathan Rhodes, national head of valuation at Cluttons and Nick Sladden, head of charities at RSM, to discuss how the current economic climate is impacting the property market for charities and how to implement a strategy that puts beneficiaries first.

Better Society