Debra Allcock Tyler: Don't overreact to bad headlines

There is no evidence to show that the public lose trust in charities generally when one of them gets some bad publicity, writes Debra Allcock Tyler

Media speculation is no substitute for sound research, writes Debra Allcock Tyler
Media speculation is no substitute for sound research, writes Debra Allcock Tyler

I have discovered a new use for the incredibly important NCVO UK Civil Society Almanac. I'm going to use it to bop the head of the next ill-informed politician or self-appointed commentator who issues dire warnings about a decline in public trust and confidence in charities because of negative stories about face-to-face fundraising or charity chief executive pay or whatever other molehills the media and politicians turn into mountains.

They need to read the latest Almanac, which, among other things, tells us that individual giving increased by £0.5bn during the period in question. This data extrapolation is based on sound research methodologies and data analysis, using information about actual money reported in charity accounts. I can find no reliable data to support the assertion that the public lose trust in charities overall when one particular charity, or small sub-set, does something that attracts criticism or attention.

Certainly, individual charities can suffer, and I suspect that some who came under fire over the chief executive pay issue may well have lost some support from some donors last year. But charities overall do not seem to suffer, and the Almanac data appears to support this.

We need to remember that opinion is not the same as behaviour. Too much of what passes for evidence in public debate is based on someone asking someone (often not very many someones) what they might hypothetically do/think/feel in a certain situation. In and of itself that's fine - it's interesting to know what people think they think. But saying, for example, that you are "concerned about how charities spend their money" and actually donating to charity are different things; one is not necessarily causally related to the other. When surveys of this nature are presented as evidence of a likely behavioural change, the risk is that we take them at face value.

When talking about public trust and confidence, it is more reliable to measure what people actually do rather than what they say they do. And factual, data-driven evidence, built up over time, such as that in the Almanac, shows that, for example, overall levels of volunteering don't drop off, major national fundraising initiatives continue to break giving records, donors continue to donate and so on. We should beware getting distracted by surveys, polls, focus groups and small-beer research reports. If one opinion poll says confidence in charities is declining but the hard data shows something else, I know which I'll believe.

Let's not fall into the classic politicians' trap of thinking that the public are stupid. If some scandal breaks out at a brand-name, international development charity, does Jane Doe stop her monthly direct debit to her local children's hospice? There is no evidence to show she does. When we overreact to a few bad headlines, I wonder if we are selling short justifiable public faith in us and the strength of our own collective charity brand.

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

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