Attempts to justify charity chief executive pay only make members of the public more angry, according to Georgie Whiteley, a senior research executive at the strategy consultancy Britain Thinks.
Speaking at the annual conference of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations in London yesterday, Whiteley shared insights gathered during a joint research project carried out by Britain Thinks for the NCVO and the professional network CharityComms.
The project collected views about the charity sector and tested messages designed to build trust in the sector with focus groups made up of charity supporters and non-supporters. One of the messages tested was an explanation of leaders’ pay.
"Attempts to justify chief executive pay only serve to increase anger," said Whiteley.
The main reason, she said, was that people struggled to grasp the figures involved because they were so far above what most people earned.
"There’s a really strong belief that chief executives should be working in the sector for altruistic reasons, and actually hearing what chief executives get paid tends to make people question their motives," she said.
The best response for charities when challenged on pay, Whiteley said, was to be transparent and open about how much leaders were paid, but not to talk about it "unless you really need to", and not to expect to win people around with messaging.
She said the research had shown that trust was a big issue for the sector and did need to be addressed, and that charity supporters were more likely to be critical of charities and frustrated by them than non-supporters.
"Supporters are the closest to the issue and they tend to keep up on negative stories much more as a result of that," Whiteley said. "We did have people talking about reducing what they were donating or cancelling direct debits. If this trust issue isn’t addressed, it’s going to impact in a financial way."
Negative media coverage served to confirm people’s concerns, not create them, she said.
When asked to give evidence to back up their negative views, many people in the focus groups did not cite media stories, even if big stories had broken shortly before the group took place, according to Whiteley.
Instead they tended to cite personal experience, and almost everyone surveyed had an experience of fundraising they felt had been overly persistent, she said.
Many people did have some positive feelings towards the sector, but they often struggled to give specific examples of the impact made by charities, and instead used vague language about charities "helping people" or "doing good", Whiteley said.
And despite the need for charities to explain their impact more clearly, she said, it would take more than that to reverse the recent decline in trust.
"If people don’t see a change on an issue, any messaging on it will ring hollow," she said.
"Distrust in the sector is really being driven by experience and is being reflected in the media, and that means communications alone cannot fix this issue."