Caron Bradshaw: Falling trust might just be a vicious cycle

By continually talking about trust, are we adding to the perception that the sector no longer warrants it?

Caron Bradshaw
Caron Bradshaw

There is much in the Charity Commission’s new five-year strategy, published this week, that gives me hope.

Baroness Stowell, chair of the commission, should be praised for taking a deliberately less combative tone.

But from reading the strategy and the comments made alongside it by Baroness Stowell, I do wonder if we have collectively become obsessed with public trust and confidence in the sector. I believe the Charity Commission might have given it too much focus.

There is no doubt that trust in the sector has gone down year on year, as shown by a range of surveys.

Some of these are carried out by the Charity Commission itself, others by think tanks and research agencies. All have one thing in common: they ask how much people are dealing with trust – or lack of it – not just in the charities they support, but in the sector as a whole.

One thing that strikes me from these surveys is that the level of trust people have in all institutions is falling, as demonstrated by the 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer, for example.

We are a less trusting society but, despite that, people still trust charities very highly, with charities and NGOs still being among the most trusted institutions, ahead of business, the government and the media.

I don’t mean in any way to play down the very real sense that some charities have let themselves and the sector down in recent months. Nor do I want to be complacent and say that if we just stopped talking about falling trust levels they would spontaneously improve without anything else being done.

Trust is complicated. Things that work for one charity might deeply worry another charity’s stakeholders.

I understand that the commission will be criticised if it doesn’t talk about being tough on those who step the wrong side of the line and undermine trust. If it underplays the need for action to address the potential for things to go off the rails, then it might be blamed if they do – not just by the media, but by all stakeholders.

But all the talk about the lack of trust leads everyone, including the public, charities and the media, to question it constantly. It becomes a vicious cycle.

I hope the narrative is moving in a better direction and might become more positive about the role of charities in society, but I do think the Charity Commission should give some careful thought as to whether the continued theme of falling trust keeps that fire burning.

Caron Bradshaw is chief executive of the Charity Finance Group

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