Editorial: Maybe a single representative body could address this decline in trust

There has been a wide variety of reactions to the nfpSynergy poll showing that public trust in charities fell by 9 percentage points between September 2006 and July last year (Third Sector, 26 March).

One view is that the survey exaggerates the problem; another that, whatever the problem is, it's not fundraising methods; a third, that the setting up of the Fundraising Standards Board has damaged trust. And so on: the seat of the problem is governance; more segmented research is needed before we can trust such figures; the sample of people polled must be faulty.

When disturbing information emerges, it's always tempting to shoot the messenger or look for reasons why it might be wrong and why, if there's a problem at all, responsibility doesn't lie in our own particular part of the forest. And there are indeed difficulties and frustrations about the survey. Trust is a fickle thing, often determined by a recent event of great impact or significance, or by personal experience. People sometimes trust organisations even if they don't necessarily think they're doing a great job - the NHS might be a case in point. In this instance, it's frustrating that the comparison is being made over time, but the reasons for the decline in trust are not available because the 2007 sample consisted of different people from the preceding one.

Despite the reservations, the fact is that the survey has a methodology just as robust as those that produce results people find more pleasing and greet with enthusiasm; and the issue of trust, however slippery, is of vital importance to charities and voluntary organisations. It would be foolhardy of the sector to shelve or dismiss these findings. Leaving aside the question of the decline, some of the other questions asked in the survey confirm that the public worries about most of the things they have worried about in the past: how do they know that the money they donate is really getting through and having an effect? Donating to a charity is not, after all, like buying a new vacuum cleaner or a basket of groceries, where what you see is what you get. Is too much of donors' money going to fundraising and administration? People remain uneasy about the idea of charity chiefs being paid £100,000 or driving around in Mercedes cars.

The Charity Commission is soon to release research that will also quantify public trust. If it finds there has been no decline - or has even been an increase - since its last survey two years ago, then those who are sceptical that there is problem here will feel justified. If it produces corroboratory evidence, however, the case will be even stronger for the sector to respond.

At the moment, there are seven or eight organisations, ranging from the Charity Commission itself to the ImpACT Coalition, that are variously responsible for fostering trust-enhancing good practice. But no single organisation does the job for charities that the Confederation of British Industry and various consortia do for the private sector.

Perhaps we need such a body - one that, irrespective of competition or the difference of views between charities, proactively puts the case for charities across the board, including their methods and their role in a pluralistic society, and that acts as a single point of contact for the public and the media.

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