Matthew Sherrington: Charities won't address public trust by answering the wrong questions

To restore public trust in charities, we need to talk about impact, not just where the money goes, argues our columnist

Matthew Sherrington
Matthew Sherrington

It’s been a month for regulators weighing in on public trust in charities. First, the Charity Commission issued its latest report on public trust in charities, which showed that trust is at its lowest level since they started measuring it in 2005, having taken a significant tumble since 2014. No surprises there, given the events of the last year, and the main reason given by people for trusting charities less was negative media coverage.

There’s some irony there, when William Shawcross, the chair of the Charity Commission, supposedly with a mandate to improve public trust and confidence in the sector, has long suffered foot-in-mouth when it comes to pronouncements in the media. He leads a board that has also been caught leaking damaging and inaccurate stories to the press. (A glimmer of hope came with an nfpSynergy survey this week that suggested public trust in charities had bounced back from last autumn, in the absence of negative media stories.) It’s worth saying, though, that recent BritainThinks research suggests that negative media has simply confirmed people’s negative views of charities, rather than shaped them.

Over in Ireland, where fundraising across charities was badly affected by a high-profile scandal in 2013 concerning "top-up" chief executive salaries at just a couple of charities, the Irish charity regulator has announced a crackdown on chief executive salaries. A populist knee-jerk, perhaps, as there are questions about the extent of the problem, and how it could be implemented, just as there would be in the UK.

And then Lord Grade, the interim chair of the new Fundraising Regulator, spoke at the Institute of Fundraising Convention last week, having commented in the press the previous weekend that he happily tells fundraisers who knock at his door to "bugger off" and pretends to be a QC to threaten telemarketers and texters with legal action.

With friends like these, who needs enemies? Well, of course, it is a delusion to think they were friends in the first place. It is just a shame they show little sensibility or support for the sector they regulate, choosing a disdainful stick instead.

But it puts centre stage, yet again, the need to restore public trust and confidence in charities. The Charity Commission highlights as the key concerns of the public accountability and transparency, good management and fundraising. People want to know where the money goes. (And the BritainThinks research says they like charity accountants.)

And yet, in their rush to justify themselves or not, as the case may be, charities are answering the wrong questions. People want to know what the money is spent on, as a proxy for what difference the money makes. Charities’ failure to properly communicate impact and progress as they chase down their causes leaves people wondering if any difference is made at all. And if not, what the money is spent on.

Of course, charities have to address those immediate questions. They have become – with stories about admin, fundraising and salaries – questions to answer. But it’s a big mistake to imagine that transparency on expenditure alone is the way to restore trust; a big mistake to believe providing more information about how you work is the magic bullet.

It’s not about you. Lack of information is not the problem. The problem is a lack of engagement around the cause, the impact made and progress, and this failure has now escalated to mammoth proportions.

If you can’t give people that, and can’t show them it matters and makes a difference, people are going to ask what on earth you’re doing, and what you’re doing with their money. 

Matthew Sherrington is a charity leadership and communications consultant at Inspiring Action. @m_sherrington

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