Cathy Pharoah: Public trust - are we too complacent?

Confidence in charities is high but we should not take it for granted, writes our columnist

Cathy Pharoah
Cathy Pharoah

It wasn't hard to find a topic for this month's column: there has been one salacious story after another about significant breaches of trust by our politicians, police, banks, media (including the BBC), the church, national celebrities and philanthropists (Jimmy Savile).

We don't know yet how such crises of trust might bring general disaffection with national institutions and reluctance to support them.

The charity sector has not been not immune. For example, William Shawcross, the chair of the Charity Commission, noted that the Cup Trust scandal had been a disaster for the sector, damaging public confidence in charities and in the commission itself. So should we be complacent about public trust in charities? There is evidence that the public's views of the sector are linked to its wider views about national institutions. The 2013 Edelman global trust barometer, based on surveys of 31,000 people in 26 countries, found that public trust in NGOs fell in a general wave of disenchantment with public institutions in 2012, only to rise amidst a general tide of recovering confidence.

Nonetheless, public trust in charities is generally found to be high. According to the Edelman barometer, people are placing less trust in business and government and more in NGOs and (I'm very pleased to report) experts such as academics. GlobeScan's regular tracking has shown that trust in NGOs is higher than in businesses, governments and the media, and is continuing to rise. However, according to a survey on trust carried out last year by the consultancy nfpSynergy, charities slipped back a place compared with well-known public bodies and institutions. They are now the fourth most trusted group behind the armed forces, the NHS and the scouts and guides.

There is something laughable about polls comparing institutions that, on the face of it, have little in common. We wouldn't trust the armed forces to carry out organ replacements, charities to launch surface-to-air missiles, the NHS to defend parliament or the scouts to run the girlguide craft badge (although the scouts were commandeered at my guide camp to put up the tents for the girls). One pollster concludes, worryingly, that the high level of trust in charities is based partly on blind faith in what they represent and that most people know little about how charities actually operate.

What the surveys show, however, is that there is no urgent need for the sector to build the public's trust. It has it in spades already and, contrary to what some argue, does not need to earn it through extensive measurement of, for example, cost-effectiveness or efficiency. Maintaining that trust is the only challenge, and in an atmosphere of growing public distrust in national institutions it should not be taken for granted. We need hand-on-heart confidence that the sector embeds the values and principles it stands for.

Cathy Pharoah is professor of charity funding at Cass Business School

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