React to falling trust now, warns Charity Commission director

Sarah Atkinson, policy and communications director at the regulator, says its report on public trust should trigger action by charities before donations fall

Sarah Atkinson
Sarah Atkinson

Charities need to react to falling levels of trust now in order to prevent future falls in donations and volunteering, Sarah Atkinson, policy and communications director at the Charity Commission, has warned.

Aktinson was speaking at the launch of the Charity Commission’s report Public Trust and Confidence in Charities in central London today.

The survey revealed that the level of public trust in charities has fallen to its lowest level since monitoring by the commission began in 2005, with people giving the sector an average score of 5.7 out of 10 – down from 6.7 when the survey was last completed in 2014.

Atkinson said the results should be taken seriously, because they match the outcome of similar studies.

She said many people would be tempted to ask if measures of trust were really as important as "hard figures like donation and volunteering", which she said had remained consistent.

But she said: "I think it’s important to reflect that those hard indicators are by their nature historic; they tell you what people have already done.

"We asked people in this research how they feel and that can give you an indicator as to how people are likely to behave in the future."

And, she said, if the change in trust resulted in a drop in donations, it would be too late to address the problem.

"We don’t want to wait until we see those historic hard indicators fall to see a trigger for action," she said.

One of the key factors in their decreasing trust cited by people who completed the survey was a lack of understanding about how the money was spent.

Atkinson said charities should take more steps to communicate what they were doing but should not underestimate the public’s ability to understand that some money needed to be spent away from the front line.

She said charities had made a lot of progress on restoring public trust after last year’s fundraising scandal, but in relation to accountability and transparency it was "much more difficult for me to say with confidence I can see the path the sector is treading, and it’s more difficult for me to say the commission knows the part it can play here".

Responding to the report, Andrew O’Brien, head of policy and engagement at the Charity Finance Group, said it was not surprising people thought less highly of charities given "sustained negative media attention".

He said: "However, we need to make sure that we do not talk ourselves into a crisis. This report has highlighted that a lot of concerns are driven by media stories, and we need to be careful about not feeding this negative news cycle."

He said the sector would be concerned that the survey indicated a fall in the public’s knowledge of the Charity Commission at a time when people wanted reassurance. "The commission needs to do more to explain its work and the robust regulation already in place as well as the fact that the vast majority of charities obey the law and are run to a reasonable standard," he said.

"This would do more to improve public confidence than knee-jerk responses to individual media stories, which has been the approach so far."

Sir Stuart Etherington, chief executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, said charities had listened to public concerns and had taken "concerted action to ensure that members of the public can have complete confidence in what they do". 

He said: "Charities are also working to strengthen their governance, including reviewing the sector’s governance code.

"They are also working with their representative bodies to explore better ways to explain how they work to ensure the public can have confidence in them."

Peter Lewis, chief executive of the Institute of Fundraising, said fundraising practice had improved.

"Putting the donors at the heart of the way charities fundraise, building long-term relationships between the public and the cause, is a strong basis for rebuilding public trust in the future," he said.

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