Opinion: Simple slogans can help build people's trust

An ongoing topic of debate, particularly regarding cards at Christmas, is the extent to which charities should trade, and the sector's entrepreneurialism.

However, it is important that the focus on commercialism should not be allowed to detract from the importance of charities promoting their core missions.

Only a small handful of UK charities achieve spontaneous recognition from the public. Media coverage is often based on controversy, with little explanation of how those charities impact upon people's lives. There is a huge need for charities to explain themselves to the public and tell their own story. The result of confused public debate about trading and, worse still, reactive invisibility, is that a range of problems arises.

Last month's Guardian/NFP Synergy survey showed that most people could not easily define charitable purpose or public trust and confidence. This confusion is often caused by the sector's reticence over communication with the public. Charities seem to feel that unless there is good news it is better to stay shtumm. We are slow in coming forward, even with stories of our own achievements.

But no news is not always good news. Where there's an information gap, the public fill it with perceptions that are often worse than the reality.

NFP Synergy's research showed that what the public are interested in are things that make them feel good, and which build trust. These are softer measures and are in line with impact reporting. Although Charity Commission data shows that 13 per cent of larger charities fail to submit accounts on time, this does not rank highly in public opinion when defining what motivates their trust in charities.

So here's an idea: why doesn't the sector create some uniform, simple messages that debunk some myths and educate the public? If we could develop, say, six slogans that charities could all put on their promotional material (for example, that charities have to employ paid fundraisers to raise money) it wouldn't half help. It could even tie in with the new standard information return form.

In short, it's time charities got their communications act together and demonstrated the impact of our work. Better annual reports and simple key messages will put us on the front foot.

Geraldine Peacock is a charity commissioner and a civil service commissioner, but writes in a personal capacity.

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