I spent some time out of the office last week, at the Navca national conference. Among the great line-up of speakers was Baroness Tina Stowell, chair of the Charity Commission. I have to acknowledge she had some warm words about small charities and our support roles as CVSs. Unfortunately she went and spoilt it by droning on, yet again, about how trust is a major issue in the world of charities and how we all need to step up (her speech was reported in Third Sector). She also made reference to the recent Civil Society Futures report, convened by the otherwise estimable Julia Unwin, which regrettably echoed some of this narrative by asking us to take a long hard look at ourselves.
When it came to questions I stuck my hand up and said that all this negative, generalisation about "charities" has me feeling like I did at school, when I was given detention because of the bad behaviour of one or two of my classmates. The undeniable wrongs of a handful of predominantly large corporate charities – over executive pay, bad fundraising practices and safeguarding abuse, to name a few – were, of course, deplorable, I said. But these large corporations, detached as they evidently were from their beneficiaries, donors and communities, bore no resemblance to the hundreds of local charities I meet and get to know every year.
This rang true with my CVS colleagues from around the country, who together support and promote the work of tens of thousands of grass-roots charities. These charities are embedded locally and are governed by local people. Typically, staff and volunteers live in the communities they serve and every member of staff, whether paid or volunteer, can walk right up to the "boss" and tell them what they really think (as our cleaner does frequently to me, and to good value). They don’t get paid excessively (most don’t get paid nearly enough for their time and commitment) and they aren’t perfect, but abusing their beneficiaries is abhorrent to them and they mostly have robust systems in place to actively prevent it. The General Data Protection Regulation had most of our members worrying unnecessarily about compliance simply because they wanted to do the right thing.
So when a former Navca colleague, Joe Irvin, pointed me towards the Charity Commission’s own report on trust, I took a deeper look, and what it unveils is even more shocking, given the narrative of the chair. It shows that trust in charities remains high – higher than private companies, social services, local councils, MPs and newspapers. It shows a decline since 2005, but all institutions have experienced declines, probably for quite complex socio-economic reasons, including the financial crisis and the rise of social media. It also highlights that the number one reason for a falling trust is not actual known incidents that genuinely do this, but media coverage of such incidents. What the media says and doesn’t say about charities matters.
The most bizarre aspect of this report is the holy grail of charities not being as trusted as "the average man or woman in the street". What on earth does this mean? I have never met the average man or woman in the street, so I really couldn’t say if I trust them or not. I know I trust my immediate neighbours because they are kind and helpful, but not the one in the next street who is inconsiderate and rude. And this exposes the nonsense of the report. When asked "do you trust charities?", surely the most common response is "which ones?" Nobody has a relationship with "charities", but many have relationships with specific charities. Personally, I trust Oxfam a lot less than I used to, but there are now many local charities I trust far more, simply because I now know them better.
In this light, the Charity Commission’s new strategic role of building trust in charities is vacuous and meaningless, unless it addresses it to specific charities. And, I bullishly say, it should not be aimed at us. If this is your mission, then regulate against excessive pay, regulate the international aid sector and regulate donor marketing, but do it in a thoughtful and focused way. These repeated, negative, non-specific, ill-judged, general comments about charities are at best unhelpful (what exactly am I expected to do with them? Churn out some trust powder and sprinkle it on our members?), but at worst they reinforce the negative media coverage, which then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Enjoy Christmas in the sure knowledge that most people do trust you and your organisation. Most people are good and believe that most other people are too.
Garry Jones is chief executive of Support Staffordshire