Can charities win back public trust?

There may be more trouble ahead for charities following a difficult year of "gory headlines". NPC's Russell Hargrave considers whether charities can win back public trust. 

Some in the voluntary sector may have found the last year a bit too exciting, joked NPC's CEO Dan Corry at the start of a discussion of trust in charities held in London earlier this month.

Indeed they may. The press has run gory headlines for months about mismanagement, high pay and hostile fundraising. And it could still get worse, according to the panel assembled for the event. All three speakers – Bobby Duffy from pollsters Ipsos MORI, Slack Communications founder Becky Slack, and political journalist Ian Dunt – warned that there may be more trouble ahead.

After years of stable levels of trust in charities, Duffy argued, public faith in the sector has taken a hit and has yet to recover. According to Duffy, it is unlikely to bounce back any time soon, although we will need to wait and see whether we are witnessing a worrying ‘blip’ in public opinion or a long-term downward trend.

Dunt, after a compelling example of how one big name charity managed to alienate him completely, suggested that the sector as a whole faces a greater reputational risk than it realises. For all the column inches dedicated to the collapse of Kids Company, he argued, it was actually quite a complex story for journalists to write about. Should a new story emerge, one exposing similar problems but which was easier to tell, then charities could be in serious trouble.

And Becky Slack (who as a former journalist and charity fundraiser brought experience from both sides of the debate) provided a useful note for the near future. Charities should be preparing for the next batch of possible charity stories, she urged, and shared her own guesses for what might come up next.

Tellingly, this list reflected a future in which charities draw more and more on new financial models and innovative ways to raise much-needed funds. What might the media make of voluntary income being used to plug pension deficits, for example, or debt from borrowing; or accountability for major decisions on managing finances? How might journalists mark the anniversary of the tragic death of Olive Cooke?

But amid the gloom there were practical recommendations.

In the fall-out from Kids Company, Duffy told the audience, charities would be wise to showcase their professionalism – but this can’t simply mean mimicking the private sector. People are already fed-up with corporate behaviour and language. "Charities should learn from business," he argued, "but not copy them".

Day-to-day, Ian Dunt argued, charities need former journalists on their staff. If the voluntary sector doesn’t value its relationship with the media then its ability to defend itself and rebuild its reputation will suffer accordingly.

As the event drew to a close, one audience member pointed out that most of the issues discussed had little relevance to small charities. These organisations don’t have the budget to bring in a dedicated press officer or pore over polling data for the latest trends. Yet their mission, income and morale are still affected by falling public trust.