Sparks didn’t fly at last week’s annual conference of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, when I had the opportunity to share a platform with Georgie Whiteley of the consultancy Britain Thinks and Nicky Hawkins of the Equality and Diversity Forum. But we were in violent agreement, and on something that a lot of charities still don’t get right. The topic at hand was how charities can tell their stories to resonate with a sceptical public.
The central theme, of course, was not the story you tell, but the question of public trust and how charities should speak at all if they are to maintain it, let alone rebuild it.
And that comes down to integrity, character and values, and living up to them (as well as delivering the difference you say you’re going to make and telling people). These are the things that determine authenticity and credibility, and are the basis for trust. Trust is established when people’s expectations of doing the right thing, or what was promised, are met. Scepticism and distrust kick in when charities fall short of people’s expectations on these things.
A hard truth for charities is that people simply have higher expectations of charities, because we are supposed to be on the side of the angels. So it’s easier for charities to disappoint. With a banker, you sort of know you’re getting an avaricious Gordon Gecko type. So it's no surprise when their behaviour matches up to low expectations. When trust is broken, it hurts. It’s raw. It’s emotional.
There’s an idea that pops up regularly in reaction to public distrust, and it’s that people simply don’t understand modern charities. And so, this idea goes on, we must do better explaining it. Wrong! How charities work is hardly top of people’s interests, and do you really want to spent the small amount of their attention you have correcting them: you know, making people feel bad by confronting their ignorance, rather than making them feel awesome by affirming the good they do in the world?
Besides, as Nicky explained, the facts don’t work. We’ve got plenty of recent election results that demonstrate this. It’s emotions that get us all going. They're what engage people around issues they care about. Yet charities have been slow on the uptake, instead maintaining that the public’s "misunderstanding" of what modern charities are and how they work is down to a lack of knowledge, and the answer is to plug that gap by pummelling them with more information. That’s a sure-fire way to switch people off.
Of course facts matter. And it might even be nice if we all approached decisions and arguments in a rational way. But we don’t, and we don’t put the time and effort into the detail. Facts can be persuasive; it’s just that they aren’t what persuade us. And as Georgie explained from recent research for the NCVO, trying to explain something like high charity salaries can just make it worse. Stop digging was the gist of the advice on that one. Did United Airlines referring to the small print of their terms of carriage work for anyone? Ditto charities and how they use data. Whatever you say, it’s what people feel is right that counts.
Another hard truth is that meeting people’s expectations isn’t enough – and, lord knows, charities can be bad enough even at that. That’s just the minimum, meeting basic hygiene. Supporter satisfaction, that feeling we want supporters to experience, comes with the pleasant surprise of doing things better than they expected. More dramatically, fail to even meet expectations and supporter satisfaction will tank.
Charities should pay more attention to their own supporter satisfaction, and less to the generic measures of public trust. There will always be a proportion of the general public that won’t trust and won’t engage, and who will have or find reasons why they don’t. "Haters gonna hate," as Taylor Swift would say. But concentrate on delivering the experience you want supporters to have, on exceeding their expectations and earning the reward of higher satisfaction and trust, and you’ll be doing things right.
"People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel," said the late writer Maya Angelou. Which pretty much sums up what to aim for.
Matthew Sherrington is an independent charity consultant at Inspiring Action. @m_sherrington