Matthew Sherrington: If we want to understand what the sector is, we need more robust research on attitudes

We must find out what people actually think about charities before we can address the issue of public confidence, writes our columnist

Matthew Sherrington
Matthew Sherrington

Just what is the charity sector? I recently attended a workshop convened by sector and research bodies such as CharityComms, the National Council for Voluntary Organisations and New Philanthropy Capital to address this question. I don't want to overstate a sense of identity crisis, but the Understanding Charities initiative has emerged in response to a couple of years of intense media scrutiny and political hostility, and concerns about what that has done to public trust and confidence.

Some charities, it is said, think the story about chief executive pay cost them hundreds of thousands in donations. Others fear rippling public disquiet. In Ireland high-profile, though isolated, examples of bad practice and a lack of transparency have hit the sector, and the long-discussed issue of stronger charity regulation has re-emerged.

First, there is the question of understanding charities. There is a feeling that people just don't understand how modern charities work, how professional they are - and need to be - in order to deliver the quality and scale of services they provide, many of them in partnership with local authorities.

Charities must answer questions about efficiency and cost-effectiveness, but I find it self-referential and reductive when charities ape the public sector by talking about these at the expense of impact and values. People don't like thinking of charities as professional. This is certainly a challenge for those in the national super-league.

Many smaller charities that are rooted in community volunteering resent being tarnished by big-money professionalism. So does explaining how charities operate matter? Or is what they offer as part of a thriving society a more important story?

Second, what do we actually know? Our knowledge of public attitudes comes from polling, where there are caveats about methodology. When people don't give charities a second thought from one day to the next, but are obliged to express a view when put on the spot, how much weight should we give to that? Polls reflect levels of trust, but do not help us to understand the drivers. Can they be mapped to changes in behaviour? We need more robust research.

Whose attitude matters? Does research disaggregate the supporters and the confirmed naysayers? Do people even notice negative media coverage, while we in the sector obsess about it? Does it change the attitudes or behaviour of supporters and potential supporters, or just feed the naysayers? Should the media be better informed so it can comment on the voluntary sector as it does on other sectors?

Finally, to what extent will the sector engage in this project? Less than half of those at the event were charity insiders. The rest were interested researchers, or from agencies, independents and sector bodies. Does that suggest there's not a widely perceived problem? Hopefully it doesn't, and it's just early days. Charities are not homogeneous, but there must be a unifying "brand charity" story out there - one that focuses not on the charities themselves, but on people's charitable action, and the difference their time and money, spent well, makes to society. Watch this space.

Matthew Sherrington is a consultant on strategy, fundraising and communications at Inspiring Action Consultancy

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