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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Post Date: September 23rd, 2013

I am involved in a lovely project at the moment, looking at the future of my local High Street. The local community association has commissioned me to conduct research  – a survey and focus groups building up to a community visioning day  – to find out what local residents of all backgrounds want their local environment to look like. Lovely because it’s where I live, so I obviously have a very tangible (if not entirely objective in research terms) stake in the outcome. Also because for the first time ever (in my experience of running several hundred policy related focus groups) no-one has once brought up the issue of immigration. So far anyway.

 But it’s also lovely because running the focus groups has reminded me of how much people relish being asked their views about policy issues, at any level. The participants at this week’s groups had a clear and immediate stake in the discussion, so perhaps it is not surprising that the debate was lively and well informed. But I’ve moderated equally passionate discussions about subjects such as pensions, aid policy and taxation.

 Our jury system correctly enshrines the idea that given the space, time and information members of the public arrive at perfectly sensible, and just, solutions.  Yet despite an increased focus on the need to talk to end users about service delivery, and drives to get the public actively involved in policy research (1) huge numbers of people have never been given the opportunity to think that they could possibly have anything to say on these topics.

 During a two day discussion about inheritance tax, which got into very technical detail about the potential for hypothecating the tax, one man spent the evening before the second day preparing ten pages of notes for himself – simply because he was enjoying the discussion and wanted to find out more.

 Similarly, numerous people have come up to me after research groups over the years and confessed that this was the first time they had ever been asked their opinion in this way, and said how much they had enjoyed it – even if they had only originally come to receive an ‘incentive’ (a small payment designed to cover costs of participants and to ensure a representative sample).

 This of course places a responsibility upon social researchers to point people in the direction of further information sources, and critically, to keep interested participants updated with what happens next, sending out the reports and so in. It’s also vital for researchers to be honest with the limitations of the research and place it into the context of wider policy making – people can feel quite crushed after the excitement of a group discussion when they realise that their input may have little (if any) impact on eventual policy. Explaining to a heartbroken young mother in Malawi with a baby dying of AIDS that my presence asking about her experience of medical supplies did not guarantee that the drugs her child so desperately needed would actually arrive was not easy.

 For many, many reasons too few people get a chance to find out that they enjoy discussing policy questions. Partly this is personal – all but the most committed feel the lure of the sofa on a cold Autumnal evening. And partly wider political and social processes impact – library closure, the increase in people struggling to literally feed their families, as well as the decline in party politics and all the well documented reasons for democratic fatigue. To some extent internet debate can fill this need, and I’ll write about that in another piece. Yet I suspect that there is something irreplaceable about being in a room with others over a sustained period of time, talking, questioning and having opinions challenged that leads to the kind of reactions I describe above.

 There are no easy answers, but some obvious missed opportunities. The party conferences could be an ideal way to get people talking – yet the season is sadly unlikely to increase the numbers of people surprised at their own ability to discuss complex policy issues. Astonishingly little is done to involve local people in any of the fringe events. Working at the conferences a few years ago, I was depressed to realise that virtually no party or group bothered to inform locals that most fringe events are open to all and free to attend (the ippr thinktank generally being an honourable exception (2)), and it seems that little has changed.

 It would be cheering to think that next year could be different. More social media letting residents know what is on and where, and some specific events aimed at locals could see more citizens entering – and enjoying – the debates usually reserved for policy makers and those around them. 


1 – for example, The National Institute for Health Research asks applications for research programmes to describe how the public will be involved (INVOLVE  (2012) Briefing Notes for Researchers: involving the public in NHS, public health and social care research)

2 ippr’s Condition of Britain project actively seeks members of the public to take part –


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Post Date: May 9th, 2013

I’m planning to start blogging regularly soon, so please do check for updates

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Post Date: November 15th, 2012

Thinking about what makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up (or the holy shiver as the Germans say), it has always been the sight of people getting up and changing their worlds and taking charge of their lives. Never mind whether it’s at a fairly personal and local level (getting the council to sort out a new playground for example), or at a much broader global perspective (making HIV medication affordable), I’m fascinated by the process and impact of this kind of social activism, and the way it links with more formal consultation processes. 


I’m planning to use this blog to write about campaigning and democracy; participation and power, linked to the work I’m doing.


Some of the areas I plan to think/ write about are:


- Why do some people have the empathy and energy to campaign/ work on behalf of people they have never met or have little obvious in common with? Is there anything that can be done at a policy level to increase the conditions that makes this kind of empathy possible?

- Where and how do cuts and deepening poverty increase people’s ability and desire to organise and get active, and is there a point at which people simply give up?

- Why is the narrative about poverty and scroungers so ingrained in Britain, yet we’ve apparently taken on board the idea that people in poverty in other countries are resourceful and enterprising (see Slumdog Millionaire/ Shantaram)?

- What conditions need to be in place to get campaigns heard and effective?

- Why is the gap between the rhetoric on participation and the reality still so great? 


I look forward to hearing views and challenges as I start to post.


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