It’s been a roller coaster few years in public perception of charities, driven by high profile news stories.
There was long-term disquiet over the selling and sharing of donor data.
And the high profile failure of ‘Kids’ Company.’ The sector faced backlash over aggressive fundraising highlighted by the death of 92-year-old poppy-seller Olive Cooke, ascribed to cold calling. Questions were raised in Parliament about the ‘gross exploitation’ of vulnerable people, and 52,389 fundraising complaints were made in 2014. Many local authorities banned the activities of so-called ‘chuggers.’ By the end of 2017, Charities were the fifth most trusted public institution after the NHS, the Armed Forces, Police and Schools.
Recent events, such as the controversies around Oxfam and other charities, as well as the President’s Club fundraising event, continue to shake the sector. Trust in Charities and the Overseas Development Sector, by the not-for-profit research consultancy nfpSynergy, published in February shortly after first reports concerning Oxfam staff in Haiti, reveals trust in charities was down 6 percentage points. 54 per cent of 1,000 adults said they trusted charities ‘a great deal’ or ‘quite a lot’, compared with 60 per cent a year earlier.
Co-founder of nfpSynergy, Joe Saxton says it is difficult to say whether the decline in trust was the beginning of a long-term trend. He said trust in charities was traditionally volatile and the 54 per cent score was considerably better than the 47 per cent figure in October 2015.
The survey also showed differences in trust depending on the charity sector: 76 per cent of respondents trusted cancer charities, but only 32 per cent trusted religious charities. Eleven of the 15 charity sub-sectors listed in the survey actually improved their marks for trust from February 2017 to February 2018. However, trust in the overseas aid and development sector declined from 40 per cent to 36 per cent. Saxton said the survey showed overseas aid charities were viewed negatively even before the Oxfam story because ‘They are trusted less and are seen to need less money, probably as a result of negative media coverage and hostility towards the government’s 0.7 per cent aid spending in recent years.’
Of course the ‘charity sector’ is large, diverse and complex. There are 10,000 medium to large charities making money, but also a huge number of small charities. The top 2,500 charities get 80% of the money and many are seen as similar to large corporations, with, some might say, similar ethical dilemmas. Even those working in the sector might be surprised to hear that there are 165,000 charities in the UK; that some 40% of those earn less than £10,000 per year (source Charity Commission), whilst at the other end of the scale Lloyds’ Register Commission is the top earning charity with income of £1,048,102 in 2015 per year, followed by The British Council and The Arts Council (source Charity Commission.)
There are concerns that older faithful donors are (inevitably!) in decline and that younger potential supporters have very different attitudes, needs and ways of engaging. Some charity trustees and workers are worried that small and medium-sized charities will lose out, as givers rush to ‘brand names’ in an anxious market. Alternatively, smaller and local charities may retain their close relationships and trust in a smaller, closer community.
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’ and has announced a new strategy to help the public regain trust in charities. In her first speech as chair of the Charity Commission, she said ‘we have a problem, 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.’ Baroness Stowell said that, 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’. She explained: ‘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 are even higher because you are charities.’
So what can charities do?
Verity London’s core message to charities is ‘don’t panic and above all, don’t hide.’ Now is a good time to take a step back, assess your plan and connect with your most important stakeholders with renewed purpose.
Build on strengths and what is working. Every charity has positives to build on. Highlight impacts, benefits, outcomes and good news stories. Ensure consistency of message and purpose. If you are struggling to align your people behind a clear communications strategy and message ask Verity London to help.
A simple ‘thank you’ and keeping supporters informed of all the positives that have come as a result of their donations and work helps create a deeper and more meaningful bond between you and your most important communities.
Look for imaginative partnerships with businesses – either large or local depending on your situation or scale. Businesses and brands are increasingly aware of the need to be seen to have a wider social purpose. A recent example, Fever-Tree’s charity of choice, Malaria No More, (www.malarianomore.org.uk) makes sense because the origins and purpose of their tonic water product align perfectly with the charity’s objectives.
Reconnect with your charity’s own purpose. Society, technology, and medicine all move on at a rapid pace. If your charity has been established for a while it pays to reconnect with the original founding impulse, explore the current needs of service users, and tell your story. Research with beneficiaries, volunteers, donors and others can reveal what is really important to them and help you understand the gaps in your communication strategy.
Social media and the internet are increasingly important, the relevance and suitability of house-to-house and street collections are under questions. It will pay to bring in a suitable expert agency with deep insight into effective social media campaigns in the sector, such as Verity London, to help develop your plan.
Transparency and proper data management and accountability are more important than ever. Address the new standards introduced by the European data protection law known as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Campaigns can be imaginative as well as compliant, encouraging recipients to feel they want to stay in touch.
Verity London Team
020 8445 8324
Call us on +44 (0)20 8445 8324