Communications: Are you being heard? Part One - Years out of date

The voluntary sector knows it struggles to get its message across to the public. In the first of six monthly articles about the problem and the practical solutions, Emma Maier investigates the gap between perception and reality.

A few hours asking passers-by what they know about charities is enough to prove beyond doubt that the voluntary sector could do better when it comes to talking to the outside world. Much better.

Many charities are making an effort to engage donors with their cause, but when it comes to talking about what charities are and how they work, the public is still poorly informed. Our straw poll shows that some are decades out of date. The people we spoke to, for example, didn't know that fundraisers are paid, common since the Institute of Fundraising was founded 23 years ago, and were not aware of the Charity Commission, founded 171 years ago.

"The man on the street doesn't appreciate the role of the sector, that the country would collapse without it, or that there are more than 20 charities," says David Pitchford, founder of a new initiative for donors, to be launched shortly. "They're caught between the flag-day 1950s and tabloid stories of good and evil ."

The media has a role to play, but part of the problem has been the sector's historical fear of talking openly of charities as modern, professional organisations that have to cover their costs. "The sector has been notoriously competitive, so it's been a case of divide and rule," says Geraldine Peacock, chair of the Charity Commission.

With existing public trust resting on some frail assumptions about charities, the sector is in a dangerous position. Steady public confidence ratings could also hide another threat. "Does it mean people are tired and haven't thought about it much? I strongly suspect so," says Pitchford. "I'd do research on boredom, not trust."

He suggests that charities should show their passionate side: "Charities need to become something donors can relate to: make money, admit mistakes, swear a bit. People will be more likely to connect."

Taking communications back to basics will help, according to Peacock.

"They should have three key messages on all their documentation and they need to be more media friendly," she says.

But she admits that the commission also has a contribution to make. "Public benefit isn't even defined - the commission needs to get out there and popularise it."

All these suggestions could open a whole new world of giving. But in the meantime it's clear from the contrast between perception and reality that a huge catch-up job has to be done with the British public: it's time for the sector to reclaim the lost decades.

The next feature in the series, which looks at the initiatives available to help charities communicate with the public, will be published on 8 March.

CHARITY SPENDING

"I don't support any charities regularly, so I don't know a lot about them. I'd guess that about 50p in the pound goes to the cause and the rest to admin. I think that would be a reasonable amount - charities and non-profits are like businesses: they have to keep going.

"I think about half of all charities have paid staff. That should be allowed. Like I said, they have to get by."

THE ANALYSIS

The public's assessment of what is acceptable when it comes to charity spending on the cause and on administration are remarkably close to the actual average figures.

However, people are unaware that charities do generally match up to their expectations and even exceed them.

The research shows that most people - unlike Tom Calvert - don't recognise the importance of spending money on management and administration to make sure donations are spent wisely and effectively, and to ensure that spending can be tracked. According to charityfacts.org, it is wise for charities to invest between 5 and 15 per cent of their income in good management and administration. But donors are still worrying about whether charities spend too much on paper-pushing rather than asking whether they spend enough on infrastructure - Charity Commission research from 2004 found that 69 per cent of the public think charities spend too much on administration.

This is not helped by some charities emphasising how little they spend on admin in their marketing material.

This is significant, given that a third of people claim that "ensuring a reasonable proportion of a donation gets to the end cause" is the most important factor affecting their trust in charities, according to the commission's research.

When it comes to knowing how charities are run, 69 per cent admit that they know very little, according to the commission. Most respondents to nfpSynergy's 2005 charity awareness survey were sure that chief executives and directors are paid and charity shop helpers and volunteers are not.

But the majority incorrectly believed that presidents are paid and fundraisers are not. According to NCVO, 28 per cent of general charities employ paid staff.

THE CONCLUSION

Charities do meet the public's expectations - but the public doesn't know that. Charities need to emphasise the importance of investing in management and administration.

FUNDRAISING

"I think it's OK for charities to spend money to raise more. I'm not really sure how much they do spend to raise £1 - maybe about £4.

"I don't hear or see much about charities. My main contact with them is when I buy vintage clothes from charity shops. Then I just shop - I don't know about the charity."

THE ANALYSIS

Only 9 per cent of the public 'strongly agree' that it is worth investing in fundraising, according to Impact, the coalition of charities working together to increase the public's understanding of charities.

In reality, charities spend 15-25p to raise £1, according to Professor Adrian Sargeant at Bristol Business School. The NCVO puts the average at 10.7p, but this is a figure for all sizes of organisation, including the very small ones that are less likely to invest in fundraising.

The amount invested in fundraising seems to have increased over the past few decades, according to historical figures from CAF. This could be because charities are becoming more professional in their approach to fundraising.

THE CONCLUSION

The drive to professionalise charity fundraising in the UK began in earnest in 1983 with the foundation of the Institute of Charity Fundraising Managers, a forerunner of the Institute of Fundraising. The establishment of the ICFM reflected increased and more widespread investment in fundraising.

This means that the large proportion of the public that still doesn't recognise the importance of investing in fundraising is 23 years behind the times.

CHARITY INCOME

"I think there are probably about 28,000 charities in the UK. I'd say less than 1 per cent of their income comes from government. I think about 5 per cent comes from people organising fundraising events at work and donations from companies. Donations from the public probably make up about 40 per cent. Charities must lose money when they stand on the street asking people to sign up - I always see Amnesty International, but I don't sign up and I'm sure there are more people like me who don't give.

"I'm not surprised that charities get more than I thought from government, but I think it's a good thing - they've got to get their money from somewhere, so it may as well come from the state rather than individuals having to pay.

"I don't think charities should invest in stocks and shares and was surprised to hear that they do. I think they should invest in property rather than the stock market. If they do invest it should be linked to the cause area they work in, so anti-smoking charities shouldn't invest in tobacco. But I don't think it's a particularly good thing for them to invest in shares at all."

THE ANALYSIS

The sector is failing to get the message across when it comes to explaining where charities get their income from. In particular, the public's perception of how much funding comes from government and the corporate sector is confused.

THE CONCLUSION

Government first started to fund voluntary organisations in a major way in the 1960s, when it became clear that the welfare state couldn't cope alone.

This makes the perceptions of the people who seriously underestimate the financial input of the state up to 45 years out of date.

REGULATION

"On a scale of one to 10, my trust in charities is about a five. But I trust them more than government. I think there are about 10,000 charities and maybe some are regulated - I've never heard of the Charity Commission.

"Some charities are good at explaining what they do and how they work. The Samaritans charity is really good. That's why I don't mind sending a child a gift at Christmas. They give you a booklet explaining everything and after Christmas you get a thank-you letter."

THE RESEARCH

- There are 167,466 main charities in England and Wales, 17,684 in Scotland and up to 5,000 in Northern Ireland.

- The Charity Commission has existed since 1835 and the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator was set up in 2003.

- In 2004/05, the Charity Commission completed 325 investigations.

THE ANALYSIS

Charity Commission research shows that 54 per cent of the public have not heard of the commission. However, three-quarters believe charities are regulated and 79 per cent of people feel that most charities are inherently trustworthy.

Despite the confusion, it's clear that many people do trust charities.

When the commission asked the public to rate their trust in charities, the mean score was 6.3 out of 10 and, according to nfpSynergy, they trust charities more than government and the NHS, but less than the military and schools.

There is no widespread research into public perceptions of fraud, scandal and maladministration in charities, but anecdotal evidence suggests people overestimate the problem. In 2002, media coverage of two charity scandals in Scotland dented public confidence. A poll showed that 52 per cent of Scots were less likely to give after the scandals.

THE CONCLUSION

Charities have been regulated by the Charity Commission since 1835, making members of the public who do not realise charities are regulated 171 years out of date.

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