Debra Allcock Tyler: The commission should not be a slave to public opinion

Asking people what they think is not necessarily irrelevant, but using it as the primary basis for policy-making is a recipe for disaster

Debra Allcock Tyler
Debra Allcock Tyler

I’m very proud we have an institution like the Charity Commission.

Our model of charity regulation and oversight is much envied in the rest of the world such that the commission has often been called upon to advise other countries about how best to encourage, support, monitor and regulate civil action.

And it seems to me that most of the time the commission gets it right. In general, it is a nuanced, judicious and informed regulator, distinguishing between malicious wrong-doing and well-meaning folk making genuine mistakes, and working with charity trustees to put things right. And its guidance is usually absolutely bang on (if sometimes a little wordy).

Which is why I’m frustrated by its persistently negative narrative about public trust and confidence. Basing policy or messaging primarily on people’s opinions is, in my view, weak science.

To gain a more useful and rounded insight into what people think, we need to look at what they actually do. If you surveyed folk about their views on sado-masochism and bondage, most would probably deny any enthusiasm, yet Fifty Shades of Grey has sold more than 125 million copies.

If people say they don’t give to charity and you ask why, they’ll find a plausible reason: "CEO pay is too high"; "money doesn’t go to the cause"; "bullying fundraising tactics". They’ll never say "because I’m a tightwad who doesn’t give a flying *insert expletive here* about my fellow human beings".

Asking people what they think is not necessarily irrelevant, but using it as the primary basis for policy-making is a recipe for disaster.

There are myriad studies and publications (such as Thaler, Kahneman, Stephens-Davidowitz) that provide solid evidence that it’s not so much that people lie to each other but that we lie to ourselves.

More worryingly, it seems to me it’s a flawed strategy for the commission to hold itself accountable for public trust and confidence (whatever that means) as it has basically little or no control over it. And by persistently saying that there is a "crisis" and "we have to rebuild trust" – especially when the hard data doesn’t unequivocally back that up – it is in danger of shooting itself in the foot.

At some point, politicians and the media are going to point out that if that’s the commission’s number-one job, then it’s not doing it very well.

If you look at what people do over time (a more reliable indicator), the key metrics of giving and volunteering remain relatively stable. And even short-term shocks can’t necessarily be attributed to a crisis in trust.

Oxfam recently reported a drop of £3.8m in donations, which sounds a lot until you realise it’s a really quite small proportion of the £99.3m that it received in donations and legacies during the same period. Variables around why people give or don’t give are simply too complex to be boiled down to anonymous opinions in a survey.

So let’s stop worrying about this exhausting, energy-sapping narrative. If we focus on our own donors, volunteers and beneficiaries it’ll all be all right.

Debra Allcock Tyler is chief executive of the Directory of Social Change

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