I fear a 'never-ending stream of unacceptable news', says academic

Ian Bruce, founder of the Centre for Charity Effectiveness, says previous scandals have not posed a major threat, but he feels there might be no public trust bounce-back after the Oxfam affair

Ian Bruce
Ian Bruce

Public confidence in the charity sector might not bounce back from the Oxfam and international aid scandals of the past few weeks, according to Ian Bruce, founder and president of the Centre for Charity Effectiveness at Cass Business School.

Speaking at a Charity Talks event last night about how charity had changed in the past 25 years, Bruce said that recent public issues such as the fundraising crisis or the collapse of Kids Company could be eclipsed by the still developing Oxfam crisis.

"Bad as they were, they did not, in my view, pose a major threat," Bruce said. "Charity as a whole has a strong brand, and strong brands bounce back fairly quickly after adverse publicity – just look at Volkswagen.

"But now we’ve had Oxfam and the wider aid sector, and my confidence in a bounce-back has been reduced.

"The charity world of 800,000 staff and 14 million volunteers is impossible to police down to the last few people. Will there therefore be a never-ending stream of unacceptable news?"

Oxfam has lost 7,000 donors since news broke about sexual misconduct in some of its overseas programmes and criticism of the charity’s response to allegations about its Haiti programme in 2011.

Bruce said research suggested people were becoming less sympathetic to disadvantaged people than they were a decade ago, and that charities had to lead the campaign to reverse that trend.

He called on the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, the Charities Aid Foundation and the Charity Commission to fund more frequent and larger surveys of public confidence in the charity sector to understand what was going on.

Work to interview key people in the media would also help charities decide how to respond to declining public trust in the sector, said Bruce.

Referring to an increasing number of mergers between charities in recent years, Bruce said he was unsure that mergers were a good thing for the sector.

"In our world, beneficiaries are often short of choices for charities to choose from," he said. "In merger discussions, more weight should be given to beneficiary choice and less to efficiency savings."

Bruce also said charities needed to change how they lobbied and campaigned, and move from focusing on politics and politicians to taking a more marketing-based approach, "refocusing to influence on corporates, given their increasing role in our society".

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