Ian MacQuillin: Everything you know about public trust in fundraising is wrong… possibly

Studies do show a link between trust and charitable giving, but might not be as important as we thought

Ian MacQuillin
Ian MacQuillin

Public trust in charities is back to what it was before the safeguarding scandals, before the collapse of Kids Company, and before the death of Olive Cooke in 2015 precipitated the so-called fundraising crisis – according to market research published by the Charity Commission last month.

This must be cause for celebration, because if more people have greater trust in charities, then they are more likely to give money to them, aren’t they? That’s the received wisdom– that trust is a necessary precursor to any giving relationship.

Well, maybe not. A recent academic study throws doubt on that notion. This was a meta-analysis done by a team of researchers from the University of Queensland in Australia, led by Cassandra Chapman.

A meta-analysis, or meta-study, is one that aggregates and analyses all the previous studies done on a particular topic to get a bigger overall picture than any of the single studies can provide on their own.

In this case, the Queensland team analysed 42 different studies that explored the effect of trust on charitable giving. These studies sampled more than 81,000 people across 31 counties.

While there is a relationship between trust and giving, it’s a small one, with trust accounting for just 5 per cent of the variation in giving.

The type of trust matters. Trust in particular organisations and the sector overall both matter more than generalised (trusting unknown others) or institutionalised (trusting society's institutions) trust.

Perhaps the key finding the paper reveals is there isn't enough research to show whether trust is a prerequisite of giving or a consequence of it.

In other words, we can't be sure whether people give because they trust charities; or they trust charities because they give to them – something I’ve written about before in Third Sector.

The evidence from all the studies shows only a correlation, but not a causal relationship. This is quite surprising given the assumptions we often make about the need for trust to grow giving. 

Of course, this doesn’t mean that there is no causal relationship; only that a causal relationship has yet been proven, but simply assumed to exist. As the paper’s authors put it, there’s a “gap between researcher assumptions and the evidence base”.

What does that mean?

Let’s consider regulation. Both the Charity Commission and the Fundraising Regulator state their goal is to protect public trust in the sector, its practices and its institutions.

Perhaps we don’t need them to do that. Sure, sectoral and organisational trust is important, but perhaps we can let individual charities take care of their own trust.

When former Charity Commission chair Baroness Stowell said people trust charities less than random strangers in the street, turns out how much people trust strangers is not a relevant consideration.

Perhaps we have no need for a regulatory crusader to seek to increase or rebuild trust by, say, advising charities not to get engaged in anything too political or controversial.

However, since trust in the sector is important, scandals might harm that trust. Yet in another study, the same Queensland University team found no evidence that scandals at individual organisations have harmed trust in the charity sector as a whole.

The trust meta-study could challenge the system of fundraising ethics that views what’s ethical in fundraising as that which promotes and protects trust in fundraising. It’s probably still important, but possibly not as important as we’d thought.

In terms of practice, the paper says there is “emerging evidence” that charity effectiveness – which is argued to be a precursor of trust – is not a particularly strong determinant of giving.

Put another way, (some) donors are not that bothered whether their donations can be trusted to help beneficiaries.

What this paper is telling us is that what we had assumed to be true is not necessarily as true as we thought it was. The relationship between trust and giving is not so cut and dried – there’s no evidence of a causal relationship – and complex interrelationships need picking apart.

It is very likely that trust in individual organisations will emerge as by far the most important factor. Yet we can no longer safely assume that increasing trust leads to more giving.

Ian MacQuillin is director of the think tank Rogare


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