Opinion: Hot issue - Do charities need a public awareness campaign?

A new survey shows that the public thinks charity chief executives are paid too much and reveals a serious mismatch between how the modern voluntary sector works and how people expect it to spend its money.


It is a shame that people still don't realise that, to be efficient and well run, charities need highly skilled professionals at their helm, and that to attract that talent they must pay.

People still assume that most 'charity people' are volunteers, no matter how great their responsibility.

For example, when a friend tells people she heads the fundraising division of a national charity, they often patronisingly say "oh, how nice". She'd get a different reaction if she told them she was responsible for a £69m turnover and a staff of 60. I tell her to push that fact more often.

However, I don't think the sector needs to run an awareness campaign.

The public would rather know that their support is helping the cause they believe in. The best way to achieve this is for charities to keep getting better at what they do. That means more efficient service delivery, improved fundraising and better communication with their supporters.

No other sector produces so many interesting stories, and it is these that will motivate people. This means it is far more important for charities to tell the public their amazing stories and run ground-breaking campaigns than to run generic campaigns about the sector.


The nfpSynergy survey suggests that the old, cliched view of charities as comfortable organisations that waste money and exist merely to exist still prevails.

This is far from the truth. Many charities are vibrant, businesslike organisations that deliver value for money and make a tangible difference.

To get their voices heard in a saturated market in which people are bombarded with messages about what to buy but not how to care, charities must employ the best staff and reward them. That is not just about paying higher wages, but also about offering other benefits, such as flexible working hours or career progression, and generally showing the private sector what a good employer is. This is happening - it was noticeable that six charities made it into the recent Times Top 100 best companies to work for.

Although this study suggests that there are negative stereotypes, I still believe people view charities positively. Now we need to persuade them not only that our causes are good, but also that they are superbly delivered by professionals who have that extra ingredient - a belief in changing the world for the better.


The recent survey by nfpSynergy reflects - once again - that people simply do not have any clear idea about the charity world. They need much more and better information.

The number of complaints about the high salaries of chief executives is just one illustration of this problem. Compared with the commercial world, most charities pay their top executives a meagre premium over their other staff. If people gripe about top salaries, the real question is what lies behind this. Fundraising charities in particular have brought this on themselves.

To those on the outside, the one-eyed emphasis on competitive fundraising and branding is not a pretty sight. In the meantime, solid information for the public is not even on the radar. The ImpACT Coalition could be great, but only if enough major charities act on it.

I was surprised to see Stephen Bubb of Acevo quoted as saying "there are too many negative stereotypes about charities, but a public education campaign would not really be something for us". Why not? The collective defect of the charity world is that it does not take the trouble to inform the public properly. Who other than the chief executives can do something about it? And why is it not their job to do so?


Let's be clear - there is not a fundamental problem with public trust in charities. True, nfpSynergy research shows that the public values charities that are trustworthy, effective and accountable. But if we are concerned about gaps in public understanding about how we operate, then as a sector we must be consistent and joined-up in addressing them. The ImpACT Coalition was established precisely to encourage charities to be accountable and transparent.

The term 'public awareness campaign' is not quite right, because it implies a one-off, issue-specific marketing campaign. All charities have a responsibility to improve awareness of what it means to be a 21st century charity - to be clear and consistent in explaining that charities do a great job and should be judged first on whether they achieve their objectives.

Charities need experienced staff, even if they also rely on volunteers.

They are businesses, albeit with a soul, and need high-quality people to ensure money is raised cost-effectively and spent wisely. It is a challenge to convey this message when the media understandably simplify the story.

That should not, however, prevent charities from making a greater effort to overcome the stereotypes.

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