Stella Smith: Get on the front foot to win back public trust

An absence of communication can often be interpreted as having something to hide, so work proactively to restore the sector's reputation, writes our columnist

Stella Smith
Stella Smith

The issue of trust is back in the charity sector headlines. Not that it was ever far away. First we had the Charity Commission reporting that trust in charities was at its lowest level since monitoring began. More recently, a rather more optimistic nfP Synergy survey reported that trust was beginning to recover. Either way, it’s clear that the issue will continue to be of concern for us all and we need to find ways of communicating effectively to restore public confidence.

Unlike commercial organisations, charities work in a space where it can be incredibly difficult to demonstrate the impact of our work. And that opens us up to all sorts of accusations of wastefulness and inefficiency. Funders have become increasingly demanding in their monitoring requirements and, in response, charities have recruited teams of people focused on measuring and reporting outcomes and impact. But it’s not an easy job, constantly trying to evidence our effectiveness. If we are to avoid being tied in knots of monitoring paperwork, we need people to trust us. We need them to understand the rationale behind our decision-making and to feel confident that we are doing the very best with the money available. We need to use every opportunity to communicate how we operate and why.

When the National Council for Voluntary Organisations set out its recommendations on senior executive pay two years ago, it seemed to be one way of doing just that. It seemed a common-sense recommendation to get information out to our supporters about how we operate. It was then rather bemusing to read a Third Sector news story in June that many charities have still not adopted the recommendations. Is it because people don’t think it applies to their organisation and it’s only an issue for big charities? Or is it because, despite the furore of recent years, we still haven’t grasped the need to communicate more effectively with people outside the sector? Whatever our reasons, we need to guard against misjudging the public mood.

There is a danger that when you’ve been resident in voluntary sector world for many years you forget what it looks like from the outside. Many of us have been immersed in the charity industry so long that we forget our ways of working are a complete contradiction to many non-charity people. We might be accustomed to senior staff pay rates, but non-charity people often find this an anomaly. Indeed, many still believe we are or should be run by volunteers. Our supporters often work long and hard to meet pressing financial obligations and still manage to sponsor a friend or make a donation. Sure, they will get a nice warm glow from the fundraising thank-you letter, but that is understandably short-lived when they discover the charity chief executive is being paid five times their salary.

As a sector, we need to guard against becoming too inwardly focused and proactively take up opportunities to be transparent. As we all know, when there is no information the communication vacuum is not filled by positive speculation. That doesn’t sell papers. An absence of communication is, rightly or wrongly, often interpreted as having something to hide. We need to get on the front foot and tell people about how we operate and why. Publishing our senior managers’ salaries might not seem as critically urgent as that monitoring report, but in the longer term it might be much more important.

Stella Smith is a consultant and facilitator

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