Opinion: Why are charity bosses losing the public's trust?

A YouGov poll for The Economist a couple of weeks ago should have given a number of leaders of voluntary sector organisations headaches.

It showed the level of public trust in a variety of public sector workers and included in its remit the charitable sector. Even trust in doctors has taken a hit, and is down by 4 percentage points. But others have done worse, with teachers down 11 points, senior police officers down 20 points and NHS managers down 19 points. Trust in charity bosses has fallen by 10 points. 

Obviously, such polls should not be taken too seriously. But a decline of 10 percentage points demands consideration. So what is going on?

I would like to hazard a couple of guesses. First, there have been a few high-profile Charity Commission investigations, notably that into the Victory Christian Centre, a charity operating a church and school in Bath that was wound up by the commission in February after quite shocking findings. Trustees who were being paid salaries by the charity were voting on each other's remuneration. Added to that, after the church and school were sold, there was a large number of withdrawals of big sums of cash from the charity's account, as well as payment for one of the two remaining trustees to study for an MBA in the US.

And then there was the case of Manchester charity Forget Me Not. Its trustees were recruited by the founders, who had previously resigned from their jobs at another charity after the discovery of improper fundraising activities, and seemed unaware of their duties. The founders had made an arrangement with a fundraising company that subcontracted its work to another company. Both fundraising companies have now ceased trading, but not before pocketing 96 per cent of the income raised on Forget Me Not's behalf. The commission found no evidence of Forget Me Not engaging in charitable work. There have been many similar cases, and they and the commission now get considerable publicity.

Another possible reason for the loss of trust in charities is the Government's policy of contracting out public services to the sector. Trust in the public sector and public services generally is diminishing, and that could have a knock-on effect on charities. But charities are scrabbling to survive and are taking on contracts to supply services even when that might not be a wise course of action or full cost recovery does not apply.

There may well be other reasons for the sector's plummeting reputation. People may have been persuaded by those who have criticised the proliferation of charities and who have questioned whether some would not be better off combining and saving overhead costs.

But whatever the causes, charities should be concerned. We pride ourselves on our voluntary sector in the UK; it has worked hard to earn its treasured place in public esteem. These figures, one-off though they may be, should be enough to make the charity chief executives ask themselves what they are going to do to rebuild public trust.

- Julia Neuberger is a Liberal Democrat peer and chair of the Commission on the Future of Volunteering.

And while we're on the subject...

- YouGov found confidence has fallen in nearly every area of public life since the invasion of Iraq. Only among judges has it risen, by two percentage points. Trust in the heads of national charities is down to 64 per cent. In declining order, the least trusted people in Britain are government ministers, civil servants, estate agents and tabloid journalists.

- The charitable activity of Victory Christian Centre ceased in 2000, when the church and school it used to run in Bath were sold. At the same time, all the charity's staff were made redundant except for one of three trustees. He was given £19,000 to study in the US, a £30,000 bonus and a 100 per cent pay rise backdated to 1999.

- The object of Manchester charity Forget Me Not was to help people affected by illness, disability or injury. In the financial year ending 31 March 2004, it raised £564,832, but 94 per cent of that went to fundraising companies. The charity carried out no charitable activity and all its trustees were acquaintances of the chief executive and manager.

- Unease over the proliferation of charities has been growing for years. In 2000, an ICM poll found that 70 per cent of the public thought there were too many charities doing similar work. At that time, it was estimated that 5,000 new charities were formed a year. One aim of the Charities Act 2006 is to facilitate charity mergers.

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