Headlines such as "Charities in crisis" are again emblazoned across the weekend papers as a slew of accusations emerge about sexual harassment and paedophilia in overseas aid organisations. The charities in question are under attack for poor self-regulation, for failing to brief the regulator fully and, most seriously of all, for failing to safeguard vulnerable people.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of these accusations, they shine an unforgiving spotlight on the ethics of the sector and yet again shake the foundations of public trust in our work. They come hot on the heels of previous allegations about ethical fundraising: the Olive Cooke case, the collapse of Kids Company, questions about senior executive pay and unbalanced lobbying.
Public attitudes research carried out by Populus for the Charity Commission in 2016 showed that trust in charities had fallen from 6.7 out of 10 in 2014 to 5.7. Further research carried out by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations found that the media coverage reflected genuine public concern about the practices of charities, particularly the larger professionalised ones – paradoxically, those that are most prominent in the public eye and marketing direct to their doors. Reassuringly, smaller local charities retained higher levels of confidence.
So what is the sector itself doing to tackle these issues head-on and ensure that every aspect of their work meets the highest ethical standards? Losing public trust fundamentally matters to us being able to continue to pursue our vital work with the most disadvantaged and discriminated-against communities. This work is even more important at a time of squeezed public finances, increasing inequality and a fractured sense of community and nation.
In 2016 I was asked by a consortium of funders to chair a working group on restoring public trust.
I assembled a group of insightful and passionate sector leaders to explore ideas. We recognised, as nfpSynergy has said, that the public’s understanding of the sector is built on the "shifting sands of misunderstanding and rose-tinted ignorance". But rather than blame the public for this confusion, we agreed that the sector itself needed to get a grip on the problem – a fundamental disconnect between what voluntary organisations say and what they do, which undermines their claims to the high moral ground.
As a starting point, we felt that the sector had to make greater efforts to improve values-led leadership and ensure that our values run through the DNA of our whole organisations – from our governance, how we manage our investments, raise our funds, employ and reward our people, outsource supplies, are good citizens in our communities through to how we safeguard our clients and craft our campaigns.
Our proposal was to pilot and test a "values-based charter" and peer-review process for voluntary and community organisations, with the ambition of introducing a culture of sector-led improvement and accountability. We believed that the sector first had to get its house in order and publically commit to doing so before we could expect to regain ground with the public.
The proposal may or may not have been the right approach – we recognised the pitfalls, the many quality methodologies already in place, the difficulties in finding an approach that was relevant to all shapes and sizes of organisations and causes. We didn’t believe that a badge of full charter compliance could ever be worn, but we felt it could be seen as a commitment to a process of constant improvement. We passionately felt that something had to be done to ensure that we live and breathe our ethics in every sinew of our organisations.
The proposal won favour with the Cabinet Office and looked set fair to be considered for funding from the lottery. But vested interests felt their toes had been trodden on and kicked the proposal into touch. The reasons why don’t matter, nor in fact did this particular proposal. There’s no right way to go. But I still believe the sector needs to do much more soul searching and self-examination before it can expect the public to blindly believe in us. Each new media scandal proves how easy it is to lose our reputation.
Some of the same funders who backed my working group have put their support behind the Julia Unwin chaired Inquiry into the Future of Civil Society. The inquiry will no doubt be assessing the health of the sector and the strength of its moral compass when it reports this year. Let’s hope that it identifies some solid steps the sector can take to reinvigorate true values leadership. It’s now more important than ever.
Otherwise we will look back at the start of this century as the moment when we squandered public trust and our social capital, and our chances to mobilise the care and passion of our communities to do our vital work.
Janet Morrison is chief executive of Independent Age and chair of the Baring Foundation, which convened the funders for the Inquiry into the Future of Civil Society