Less income might be the price we pay to regain public trust

We must be prepared to consider operating in the way people expect, writes Stella Smith

Stella Smith
Stella Smith

Should someone make a mistake in your favour, how quickly must you correct it? A few years ago, I was introduced to someone who, on hearing I worked for a charity, commented: "Oh, you must be such a nice person!" I briefly considered setting the record straight, but didn't. It was, I thought, a harmless mistake from which I could only benefit.

In retrospect, though, it was a telling example of how people from outside the sector have had quite an idealistic view of charities. There has been a widespread assumption that charities must be, by definition, more ethical than commercial business, an expectation that because charities exist to do good work the people who work for them must be virtuous. Many people have assumed that charity staff are mostly low paid or volunteers.

Those of us in the sector know the reality to be more complicated. Like every other organisation, charities are staffed by people who work under pressure and, as the sector has grown and become more competitive, and donors' requirements more stringent, it has become nigh on impossible to put moral principles at the forefront of every decision. In striving to become more business-like, our focus has moved to hitting targets, sometimes regardless of the means used to do this.

Recent media coverage has highlighted the gap between public expectation and the less perfect reality. This has intensified interest in what exactly does go on behind the scenes at a charity. People aren't interested only in what we achieve for the cause, but also in how we do it: our fundraising methods, how much we pay the chief executive, where our head office is based.

Although this was quickly refuted by the Charity Commission, the comment by Lord Grade, interim chair of the Fundraising Regulator, that charities that don't comply with the new Fundraising Regulator might risk losing their charitable status, reflected a more widely held belief that all aspects of charities are fair game for public scrutiny.

But is it fair or even reasonable to expect charities to operate to higher ethical standards than other types of organisation? If we are to be more business-like, can we at the same time ensure that everything we do is to the highest moral standards? Certainly there is a case to be made that donated money is used more carefully and responsibly than money exchanged in return for a product or service. However, we cannot guarantee that every aspect of our operation will always comply with the public's moral compass.

Nevertheless, the recent Third Sector survey (April issue, pages 29-33) illustrated how critical media stories have damaged the sector. It will be painful and will involve short-term losses, but we now need to consider how we operate in a way that is more in line with the expectations of the public. After similar announcements were made by the RNLI and the British Red Cross, Cancer Research UK says it will now ask people to opt in to fundraising communications, clearly signalling a different way of thinking about donors and fundraising. It's likely to lead to a drop in income, but this might be the price we have to pay for regaining public trust. Maybe I should have corrected that harmless mistake earlier.

Stella Smith is a consultant and facilitator

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