Trevor Morris: 'Events fuel the view that charities are more political'

At the beginning of 2014, the professor of public relations said in a Third Sector interview that the age of innocence for charities was over. One year on, he tells Stephen Cook that public scepticism is still on the rise

Trevor Morris
Trevor Morris

At the start of 2014, Trevor Morris, professor of public relations at Richmond University, told Third Sector that the age of innocence for charities was over and that they would have to get used to not always being loved.

His argument was that charities were sounding more like politicians, acting more like businesses and reacting defensively to criticism. The result was that the special dispensation that used to exist for charities was disappearing and people were more sceptical about them than in the past.

One year on, Morris says that both research and events indicate that matters have continued to slide. He cites studies by the Charity Commission and the think tank NPC that indicate trust in charities is falling, especially if they are seen to be large, professional and politicised.

"Events continue to fuel the view that charities are more political and therefore more exposed to the same criticism as politicians," says Morris. "Osborne suggests that charities are anti-business; Oxfam produces its campaign A Perfect Storm; then there are objections to the Save the Children award to Tony Blair. I even saw that the Scottish National Party is invoking charities to attack Tory welfare policies.

"Things just keep on happening and the public gets a general impression that the big charities are more political, they pay themselves more in line with the private sector and have responded to criticism more like the private sector."

What would he say to Oxfam, subject of a still unresolved complaint to the Charity Commission by Conor Burns MP about A Perfect Storm, which said austerity was making poverty worse? "If I was advising Oxfam, I would ask it who it is running the charity for - the hardcore activists or the general supporters?" Morris says.

"If the latter, it wouldn't run a campaign such as A Perfect Storm. That was more like something a political party would do. The RSPCA, ditto - less about badgers and prosecuting foxhunters if it wants to retain the support of people who say 'I gave money to save a puppy'."

What about the future? "Charities are more important because there's less party political loyalty and people express themselves through participation in charities and NGOs," Morris says. "So the challenges for them are the same as for political parties: balancing the 1 per cent of activists against the 99 per cent who give money and are mildly supportive.

"It all makes charities more central - and more under attack. In the next five years there's going to be less government money. They'll be lobbying for a shrinking cake. They are already starting to have a go at each other because they're competing for a limited pot of money. I can see things becoming only more acute.

"Charities are not in danger of going into decline, even though state funding will go down. They are going to have a harder time, though, just like many businesses, which have had to learn not to be loved. The margins between politics, business and charities have become more blurred."

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