Cathy Pharoah: Charities must be beyond reproach if they are to preserve their good name

Recent bad press could damage public trust, says our columnist

Cathy Pharoah
Cathy Pharoah

Public trust in charities remains high, according to a recent report by the Charity Commission.

The survey comes as faith in other institutions is declining. But can this trust be maintained as pressures on the sector grow?

Charities' relationships with the public will be tested over the coming months as they ask donors, themselves potential victims of service and job cuts, to fill government spending gaps. Trust is a vague notion on which to depend and is conditional upon a perception by the public that charities are good as well as doing good.

The commission highlighed that the most important things to tell donors about are efficient use of funds and trustworthy fundraising, not mission. So the Fundraising Standards Board's June report, which showed a higher level of public complaints about fundraising against its members, is not good news, even if the increase was due to more members taking part in the survey.

Recent months have revealed a number of potential potholes for the public image of sector ethics and conduct. Client confidentiality was in the spotlight earlier this year when the National Bullying Helpline said employees at Number 10 had contacted it. The RSPCA got a hard time in the press for pursuing its legacy case against Christine Gill and, more recently, discriminatory adoption policies at Catholic Care were tackled by the commission.

In another report in the summer, the investment research group Eiris warned that 86 per cent of people would be less likely to support charities that do not invest ethically.

The contribution of Tomorrow's People to the Conservatives' election manifesto raised issues of charity independence, and Tony Blair's gift to the Royal British Legion brought ethical issues about donor motivation out into the open.

And will pressures to increase commercial income prompt increasingly predatory behaviour? The Eden Project angered neighbours when it proposed a 127 metre-high wind turbine (it later withdrew the plans). Less than a year after it was refused planning permission for floodlights on its new playing fields, Streatham & Clapham High School, a member of the Girls' Day School Trust, has reapplied, again in the teeth of opposition from residents.

Many of these issues are complex, but the sector's public image is one of its most valuable resources. There are honours for charities' achievements, performance, fundraising, and annual reports and accounts. What about some new awards for neighbourliness and good behaviour, and a set of standards for good charity citizenship?

Cathy Pharoah is professor of charity funding at Cass Business School

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