Public understanding of charities 'must be improved when pandemic recedes'

A study by the academics Beth Breeze and John Mohan says the public's 'low and arguably uninformed' opinion of the sector dates back at least 70 years

Face-to-face fundraising: often a cause of controversy
Face-to-face fundraising: often a cause of controversy

The voluntary sector must improve the public’s understanding of charities if it wants to increase levels of support after the pandemic, a new study has concluded.

The study, called Sceptical Yet Supportive: Understanding Public Attitudes to Charity, by Beth Breeze of the University of Kent and John Mohan of the University of Birmingham, says that people in Britain are supportive of charities but do not really understand them. 

The public is willing to give to charities, the authors say, but they have a “low – and arguably uninformed – opinion” of the sector.  

Breeze and Mohan argue that this has been the case for at least the past 70 years, since the creation of the welfare state, with charities relying on a “sceptical but supportive public”.

In a statement accompanying the report, Mohan said: “Levels of charitable giving have shown considerable stability, suggesting that there is sustained popular support for donating. 

“Long-run trends show that the proportion of households giving to charity, and the amounts they give, fluctuate very little.” 

But the report warns that the contrast between this generosity and concern about how charities operate is likely to become particularly apparent as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

“During the 2020 Covid-19 crisis there has been an unprecedentedly high response to fundraising efforts for NHS charities, notably that organised by 99-year-old war veteran Tom Moore,” the report says. 

“Despite evident public generosity, there are ongoing debates about the ‘right role’ for charity in relation to state provision as well as concerns about ‘poor practice’ in UK charities, often fuelled by media coverage.”

The report says more needs to be done by the sector and its stakeholders to provide evidence-based responses to public criticism. 

But it says that politicians, policymakers and regulators should support this by avoiding “cheap shots”, warning that “ideological criticisms and often evidence-free assertions about fundraising techniques, high salaries or administrative costs” were not going to help the promotion of public trust.

“When influential people are ‘sticking the boot into charity’ – whether they be senior political figures, current and former chairs of the Charity Commission or newspaper editors – this hardly seems likely to stimulate public support,” the report says. 

Avoiding “unnecessary and unfair reputational harm” will become even more important after the expected fall in fundraised income becaue of the global pandemic, it says. The authors suggest that, given the cross-party support for the voluntary sector, government bodies and representatives should take a proactive role in countering harmful myths and explaining why charities need to spend money on overheads and fundraising.

They should also highlight when charities achieve significant impact, the report says. 

In the statement, Breeze said: “Charities are often subject to vigorous criticism and very negative newspaper headlines. As with previous crises, it is likely that current support will soon turn into criticism – for example, of how quickly the funding is spent and on what.

“We hope this research helps to provide some context that these concerns are long-standing and that we all need to better appreciate the reality of how charitable income is raised and distributed.”

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