Here's how we can regain the public's trust

Craig Dearden-Phillips outlines the steps he believes the charity sector should take

Public trust: vitally important to the sector
Public trust: vitally important to the sector

If you hadn't noticed, there is a crisis of trust in the establishment. As charities, we are caught up in that together with the usual rogues gallery of politicians, bankers, metropolitan liberals and "experts".

Does this constitute a serious problem? At the moment, we don't know because there is no perceptible slide in charitable donations that would suggest so. But today's media stories are tomorrow's altered perceptions. Whether we like it or not, charities are fair game in the social media age. Post-Kids Company, the papers love a good "charity waste" story.

Face up to criticism

How do we respond? First, we have to address the criticism. A few charity chief executives are paid too much. This is now public knowledge and gives Josephine Public the impression that any top charity chief executive is on half a million quid a year. This is not true, and not helpful either. Most charity chief executives I know earn between £50k and £100k. A good salary, given that you are privileged to be running an organisation aimed at changing the world, not selling widgets. But not a fortune either.

Once they understand that charities need talented people to run them, people can cope with a salary at that level. Quite rightly they balk at £500k. So, Charity Commission, it's time to get tough on those paying silly money.

Second, the charity sector has to be much clearer about its impact. Charities not only receive grants and donations but also get massive tax breaks. They are generally exempt from corporation tax and pay only 20 per cent business rates. Tell this to a struggling cafe owner next door to the charity shop and that person is right to ask what it is that you're doing exactly to justify the tax privileges that he will never see. This means investment of some of those savings in proper work that explains to the cafe owner why you're getting these privileges and he is not. Being a charity is no longer enough to make people believe you're really doing good in the world.

Third, we have to stop slagging off the business sector as "profit-mongers", in contrast with us in our third sector Tower of Virtue. I see this a lot in sectors where charities are competing with private companies, which, it is assumed, are dastardly-dicks. This is silly. For every controversial business fat cat, there are tens of thousands of fantastic businesses that make outstanding social contributions, on top of paying a ton of tax to keep the NHS and schools going.

Moral quagmires

Let's not forget that there are as many moral quagmires in the charity world as in any other. These include a commonly found unwillingness to prioritise outcomes for beneficiaries over the needs of the organisation, lots of projects that we know, in our hearts, are not hitting home and the frequent exaggeration of achievement. Those in glass houses really shouldn't throw stones. A bit more humility at times and respect for the social contribution of other sectors would make us look a lot better in the eyes of onlookers.

Trust is a delicate thing. Once it's gone, it is gone for good. Our sector, thankfully, still appears to be trusted despite the shenanigans at Kids Company and the FTSE100 salaries enjoyed by a handful of people whose organisations should be part of the private sector. But we need to be careful. Perceptions are changing. Elites are under attack as never before and big charity might easily be swept into this. Trust now needs to be earned by exemplary behaviour, proper evidence of our impact and humility about the privileged position of charities and the important contributions of other sectors.

Craig Dearden-Phillips is managing director of Stepping Out and convenor of Social Club, a network for third sector chief executives

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