Confidence in charities has fallen to a level at which only two in five people trust them, according to the latest survey by voluntary sector think tank nfpSynergy (Third Sector, 26 March). Some have dismissed these results or pointed to a wider dissatisfaction with all British institutions, but others have spoken of a growing and potentially destructive paranoia within the sector about public perceptions.
The research, which asked a representative sample of 1,200 people which British institutions they trusted most, was part of the Charity Awareness Monitor, a syndicated research service paid for by 47 member charities. More specific questions are asked each month, but general trust in charities is measured once a year.
Joe Saxton, founder of nfpSynergy, says the results are a warning. "The situation can surely only be compounded by other research suggesting significant public apprehension, often ill-founded, around such areas as how charities raise and use funds or pay their staff," he says.
"The sector cannot be ostrich-like and pretend the situation will improve on its own. We need to manage the reputation and image of charities and the sector proactively."
Nothing to worry about?
Jay Kennedy, policy officer at the Directory of Social Change, says the survey exaggerates the problem. "There's a lot of concern in the sector about how the public perceive charities, and it's probably good that it's being pushed up the agenda," he says.
"But the flipside is that we get obsessive about it and think everything is negative. As long as charities are thinking about how to do things better, there's not much to worry about."
With trust in all public institutions in decline, some have suggested that charities are no longer seen as distinct from businesses. Jon Scourse, chief executive of the Fundraising Standards Board, points to last year's research by the FRSB into direct mail fundraising techniques. "Our research indicated that charities do not enjoy special status with the public," he says.
Fundraising techniques, often accused of having an adverse effect on how the public views charities, do not necessarily contribute to the drop in trust, according to the monitoring of complaints to the FRSB, which will be published next month.
"It was thought that most of the complaints would be about face-to-face fundraising, but in fact this is not the case," says Scourse. "Concerns raised have been more about issues across the board than specific methods of fundraising."
Some think that the introduction of the FRSB has, ironically, contributed to the decline in trust. Adrian Sargeant, professor of non-profit marketing at Bristol Business School, says: "There never was a problem with the quality of UK fundraising, and levels of public trust had been pretty constant over time, so when the new scheme was created, the public and the media started to believe that there must have been a problem.
"The impact should be transitory. I'd expect to see levels climb again over time, but only if the FRSB director starts doing what he should be doing: building trust and confidence rather than criticising professional practice through the media."
Sargent says the FSRB should remain impartial and only form a view when it is asked to do so. He believes educating the public about how fundraising works would be a better way of building public trust.
Richard Marsh, direct or of the ImpACT Coalition, which promotes transparency, says there is still a feeling that charities should be distinct from other organisations. It is governance that needs improvement, he says: "Our governance inquiry last December showed that there's good awareness of the code of governance, but only half of organisations are actually using that code. The majority are still recruiting by word of mouth, and few organisations are appraising trustee boards."
The Charity Commission is conducting its own research into public trust in charities, which will be released later this year. Its 2005 survey showed an average trust score of 6.3 on a scale of one to 10, but it is not yet known whether this figure will have fallen.
Oliver Reichardt, research manager at umbrella body the NCVO, says: "With so many different types of charity, we would have to look at trust in each type for a poll such as this to really tell us anything. It would be interesting to see whether trust is greater in local or international charities, those that help the elderly or people overseas."
Reichardt says the poll should be put in context of a wider lack of trust in society: "Overall, it isn't worrying - it's just one snapshot. We would need a more thorough study than this."