Charities might never regain the level of public trust they enjoyed a few years ago and should focus on their supporters, not politicians and the press, delegates at the trustee conference run by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations heard yesterday.
In his keynote speech at the London conference, Philip Kirkpatrick, a partner at the law firm Bates Wells Braithwaite, a co-organiser of the event, compared the issue of public trust and confidence in charities with that of climate change.
The wider political climate had grown more sceptical and angry, he said, so in that context it was important for charities to adapt in order to survive.
But he said charities also had to acknowledge what was beyond their control and focus on securing the confidence of their own supporters, rather than worrying about the wider public and the press.
"Like climate change, it’s only when we're in it that we notice it at all," he said. "Now that we're in it, reversal will take longer than its creation and we might never get back to where we started."
As with climate change, Kirkpatrick said, there was no point blaming the bigger fundraising charities or the badly run charities.
"We're in it, we have to adapt to it and we have to do our bit to reverse it," he said. "And while we're not individually responsible for the reputation of the sector, this is a situation where, in Noam Chomsky's words, we are each individually responsible for our own inaction."
But he said charities should not waste effort on trying to convince politicians who did not believe in charity campaigning or members of the public who did not agree with their causes or their trustworthiness, he said.
"We don't need to convince the world at large – it's not possible," Kirkpatrick said. "Charity can be and should be controversial. If we try to be all things to everyone, we will quite easily become little to anyone."
Instead, he said, charities should focus on their specific audience: supporters, potential supporters, beneficiaries and staff.
Charities should also take the time to consider, rather than just assume, that what they were doing was worthwhile, he said.
If charities were not sure or had not asked how they were doing a good job, they would not be able to convince others, said Kirkpatrick.
Speaking at the same session, Paula Sussex, chief executive of the Charity Commission, said charities would find it easier to work together once the regulator improved the quality of data available on the register of charities.
She said the commission had begun to take its responsibility as registrar "more seriously" and was working to make sure the information available was as accurate as possible.
Sussex's comments came after the launch of a new draft version of the Good Governance Code.
When asked what she thought would be the most challenging aspect of the code to implement, she said that in order to consider sharing more work with similar organisations, as the code recommended, charities would need and should expect better information from the register to help them work out which were the equivalent organisations.