Peter Stanford: Public's trust in charities is not as strong as it should be

Charities make mistakes but it rests on the shoulders of trustees to ensure that the slip-ups are few and far between, says our columnist

Peter Stanford
Peter Stanford

The moment in lectures when the speaker pauses and begins a new verbal paragraph with, "so I decided to look up the word in the dictionary", is usually the time when I want to leave the room. A talk based on reading out and then unpicking a dictionary definition is just so contrived and laboured. You'll never hear a gifted or persuasive orator do it.

But perhaps I need to revisit this prejudice. For starters, a bit more recourse to dictionaries is no bad thing as our language becomes ever more corrupted and imprecise. I seem to spend half my waking hours coaxing my children to use their print dictionaries - a far better, more reliable alternative to online versions - to increase their vocabulary.

Even with familiar words, it can help from time to time to stop and think about precisely what they are saying. Take 'trustee'. Why are trustees of charities not simply called directors like on any other board?

In legal terms, the answer is plain - that charities have a trust deed and the role of the trustee is to ensure that the trust deed is adhered to. And it is that trust deed that makes the charity different from any other business - that's why 'director' would be inappropriate.

Deep resonance

But the resonance of the word trustee goes much deeper. Lovers of Caroline Aherne's peerless TV sitcom The Royle Family will remember the moment when Nana Royle (Liz Smith) asks her granddaughter, Denise (played by Aherne), to spell out the word funeral. F-U-N, she begins.

"Stop there," Nana interjects. "I want my funeral to be just that, fun."

In the same spirit, spell out the word trustee. T-R-U-S-T - and stop there. That's precisely what we are - guardians of the trust that members of the public place in charities over and above other public institutions. And that trust is our most precious commodity. It is the reason why we can do things that other public bodies can't. We squander it at our peril.

It was reassuring, then, to read Trust in Public Bodies and Institutions: 2006-2011, published at the tail end of last year by the consultancy nfpSynergy. It is based on interviews with 1,000 members of the public asking them how much trust they had in 24 different public bodies and service providers. Charities were trusted by 59 per cent of respondents. That's up on the 53 per cent of a previous survey and put us third in the roll of honour behind the army (75 per cent) and the NHS (62 per cent).

So there's nothing to cause us sleepless nights? Well, if you scratch the surface there is certainly food for thought here. Almost all of us - save for a few right-wing ideologues - are absolutely committed to the principles of a National Health Service, free at the point of delivery and available to all, but it can, in all fairness, have its crises when it comes to delivery.

Think of any one of a number of recent reports on the care of the elderly and the voices of their relatives, recounting the failures of basic nursing care before concluding that they would never again trust a hospital to look after their mother, father, uncle or grandmother.

Be aspirational

Is it pushing the point too much to say that we might aspire as charities to outperform the NHS in terms of public trust? Many third sector organisations, for example, work alongside NHS providers to pick up shortfalls in its provision.

The survey also looks at the volatility in levels of public trust in various bodies. By this measure, charities came second to banks in terms of heights of fluctuation, which is hardly something to be proud of. Trust in us has varied between 42 per cent and 70 per cent in surveys carried out over the past five years.

It is, I suppose, the flip side of being so trusted in general. One slip and you are damned, and recovering lost trust is often a very slow process.

Charities make mistakes, of course - but it rests on the shoulders of trustees, those guardians of trust, to ensure that the slip-ups are few and far between, that when they do happen they are examined, picked over and insulated against in the future, and that the charmed relationship between charities and the public continues, for the benefit of all. There is, this survey spells out, no room for complacency.

Peter Stanford, a writer and broadcaster, and was a charity chair for more than 20 years

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