Glimmers of returning public trust in charities

Things aren't perfect, but there are signs that perceptions of the sector are improving after the negative media coverage of recent years. Andy Hillier reports.

There has been much debate in recent years about whether the relationship between the general public and charities has become broken after a number of sector scandals.

But to what extent has that relationship become damaged, and is the public now less likely to donate to charities as a result? Research for this year's Donating Trends survey, produced by Harris Interactive on behalf of Third Sector, sought to addresses these questions and more.

Harris Interactive surveyed more than 2,000 people between 20 and 27 March this year. On the issue of public trust, a net proportion of 39 per cent of respondents said they considered charities to be highly trustworthy (see figure 1) compared with 9 per cent who considered them to be highly untrustworthy. A fifth of respondents (20 per cent) scored charities eight out of 10 for trustworthiness, and charities scored considerably higher than the government and the media, which were considered highly trustworthy by just 16 per cent and 13 per cent of respondents respectively.

However, there appear to be significant differences between the generations. Twelve per cent of those aged over 55 considered charities untrustworthy, compared with just 6 per cent of 16 to 24-year-olds.

Martin Bradley, associate director at Harris Interactive, says: "The younger age groups tend to be more trusting of charities and older people tend to be more cynical. But this is something we tend to find in most surveys on public trust - older people are generally less trusting."

Nearly half of respondents (48 per cent) said they trusted charities to spend their donations wisely (see figure 2), compared with 29 per cent who said they distrusted charities to do so. Twenty-three per cent said they neither trusted nor distrusted charities to spend their money wisely.

Respondents were also asked whether they had seen any news stories about the fundraising practices of charities over the past two years and whether this had influenced their opinions of charities and their likelihood to give (see figure 3).

Sixty-six per cent of respondents said their perceptions of charities hadn't changed after reading the coverage, but 27 per cent said they now held more negative opinions; only 8 per cent said they now held more positive views. However, this is more upbeat compared with 2016: last year 39 per cent of respondents said they held more negative views of charities after seeing press stories, and only 6 per cent held more positive views.

"The study indicates that, although the issues haven't gone away, they're less prominent in people's minds than they were last year, when the fundraising scandals were in the news," says Bradley.

Asked whether the news stories they had seen had changed the likelihood of them giving to charity, 20 per cent said they were less likely to give now, compared with only 8 per cent who said they were more likely to do so. The vast majority (72 per cent) said the stories they had read had made no difference to their likelihood of giving. Again, although this is not entirely positive, it is an improvement on last year, when 30 per cent of respondents said they were less likely to donate after reading negative coverage. "This points towards a better picture for charities this year compared with last year," says Bradley. "It's better, but it's not perfect."

Respondents were also asked to select which issues would reduce their trust in charities (see figure 4). The top answers were spending large amounts on senior executive pay (44 per cent), being pressurised to sign up or donate (39 per cent) and fundraisers knocking at your door (34 per cent). The over-55s were most concerned with charities spending large amounts on senior executive pay: 58 per cent cited this as an issue, compared with 28 per cent of people aged 16 to 24.

But Bradley says the responses indicate a year-on-year decline in concern about the techniques charities use to fundraise. "Last year, 45 per cent of respondents were concerned about being pressurised to sign up or donate, compared with 39 per cent this year, and 38 per cent were concerned about fundraisers knocking at your door, compared with 34 per cent this year," he says. "One of the stories to emerge is that the methods fundraisers use are not as much of an issue as they were last year."

The survey also asked how much a charity should pay its chief executive or highest earner (see figure 5). Fifty-six per cent of respondents said they should be paid less than £40,000 a year and only 10 per cent said they deserved to receive more than £100,000 a year, highlighting the ongoing challenge larger charities face when justifying senior executive pay levels to the public.

Respondents were also asked whether they would be likely to register with the Fundraising Preference Service. When it is launched this summer, it will potentially allow them to stop receiving communications from charities they no longer wish to hear from (see figure 6). Thirty-seven per cent said they would be likely to register with the service. However, this compares favourably with last year, when 52 per cent of respondents expressed an interest in registering with the service.

Respondents were also asked whether they had engaged with charities online, including giving money to a cause, visiting a charity website or Facebook page, or taking part in an online campaign (see figure 7).

Not surprisingly, there were significant differences between the age groups. Forty-eight per cent of 25 to 34-year-olds and 43 per cent of 16 to 24-year-olds said they had engaged with charities in this way. However, only 20 per cent of over-55s said they had engaged with charities in these ways. Of the over-55s who had never engaged with charities online, 58 per cent said that they simply had no interest in communicating with them in this way, and a quarter said they preferred to engage with them offline.

"The difference by age was quite startling," says Bradley. "It provides another reminder to charities that a catch-all approach is not going to work.

"If you want to engage with young people and get them to donate, you have to look to engage with them where they are, which is increasingly online."

The full Donating Trends report is available to purchase now


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