Post Date: November 13th, 2014

Public support and trust is vital for the voluntary sector. Without financial support from individuals, action from campaigners, the ability to recruit the right staff the sector will struggle – particularly in the current tough funding climate. Charities also depend on the public to affect the political weather in the broadest sense, to give politicians permission to increase the aid budget for example.

 In general, charities are well regarded and trusted, particularly by those who know about their work.[1] Yet it comes as no surprise to anyone in the sector that trust in charities can be fragile. When people ask me what I do for a living I am used to responses ranging from dismissal, assumptions that I am not paid, assumptions that I am on a moral high horse, and many many challenges about the appropriate role of charities. These were much more marked when I worked within an organisation than now when I run my own business working with NGOs, and I tend to simply say I am freelance (self marketing not being one or my strong points), but I still frequently get challenged. 

Recent reports from NPC[2] and BOND[3] highlight the challenges of getting and keeping the levels of support necessary for the sector to thrive. 35 per cent of people have some mistrust in UK charities, although the majority are in the middle (NPC). The reports point out that it is not surprising that lack of trust could increasingly become an issue. Negative media coverage about CEO pay, general lack of understanding of the sector and the more widespread decline of trust in public institutions all contribute. Interestingly, the NPC report found that the public is more wary of charities that take government money, and those that are overtly political – perhaps tainted by proximity to politicians. In relation to international development, media focus upon corruption and lack of differentiation between different African nations do not improve poor knowledge of aid and global poverty.  

They both see lack of understanding of the sector as a key issue, and the research demonstrates some major gaps in public knowledge. For example, 67 per cent of people think of large organisations when they think of charities, when only 16 per cent of charities have an income of over £100,000 (NPC). Again, this will not come as a surprise to anyone working for a charity who has tried to explain their role to someone outside the sector. When my husband and I first applied for a joint mortgage I noticed our financial advisor put down my occupation as ‘works in a charity shop’. At the time I worked for a thinktank. I didn’t mind the mistake, but mused about how a sector worth £39 billion[4] employing 800,000 people[5] could be conflated in this way.

It is rather depressing to find such lack of knowledge, when a recent ippr report found that 93 per cent of households have used at least one charitable service at some time in the past, and 79 per cent have used a service in the last 12 months.[6] Underpinning the conclusions of both reports is the rationale that making the sector’s case to the public will win more people over and a sense that greater understanding will lead to greater trust and sympathy.

 I feel equal hope and anxiety about this. It is deeply frustrating to be dealing with myths and misinformation, when there is ever increasing work to be done.  And yes, having the public on board with the sector is critical.

The BOND report focuses upon segmenting the public and working only with those who might be receptive to messages about aid and global poverty. But we should also remember the fact that people tend to hate nothing more than feeling that their money is being spent on persuading them to think differently. Research I was involved in years ago about attitudes to asylum seekers for ippr demonstrated that far from making people more liberal, giving them the facts about actually tended to crystallise their views as they feared that they were being manipulated

Unless opportunities to address legitimate questions – about corruption, about pay and fundraising – are taken seriously there is a danger that the public will sense a whitewash and further lose trust. Simply making a case without stopping to listen could be deeply counter productive.





[1] James Nobel and Sue Wixley (2014) Matter of Trust: What the public thinks of charities and how it affects trust (NPC)

[2] James Nobel and Sue Wixley (2014) Matter of Trust: What the public thinks of charities and how it affects trust (NPC)

[3] Bond (2014) Change the Record: Exploring new ways to engage the UK public in tackling global poverty

[4] 2011/12 figures. Source NCVO UK Civil Society Almanac 2014.

[5] Ibid

[6] IPPR (2014) Charity Street: The Value of Charity to British Households 

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