Gareth Jones asks whether connecting more deeply with our grassroots is the key to winning back public trust.
Our cover theme in Charity Finance magazine this month is public trust. As David Ainsworth outlines, a degree of scepticism is required when looking at polling on this subject, but the overall trends are stark enough to suggest that charities should be concerned and taking remedial action.
When reputation risk is included on the risk register, it usually concerns direct risks to the charity itself – for example, a safeguarding incident in a care home that gets picked up by the local media. Yet the trust challenges for the charity sector as a whole are much broader. There is a fundamental disconnect between what the sector is and what the public think it should be.
It is hard for any individual charity to feel they can make a tangible difference to this, let alone commit substantial resources. Most mid-to-large-sized charities have a communications function seeking to publicise stories about mission delivery or campaigns, but changing public attitudes to executive pay, administration costs and certain fundraising practices are not a priority.
It therefore falls to charity umbrella bodies to pick up the mantle on the sector’s behalf, and NCVO is making a concerted effort to construct an agenda on this. It has set up Constructive Voices to facilitate links between charities and journalists, and is working on a website to explain charities to the public.
NCVO should be applauded for investing time and effort into this. Unfortunately, however, there are limits to what it can achieve on its own.
One hurdle is that research in social science suggests that “myth-busting” doesn’t work. All it does is raise awareness of the myths you are trying to bust. So while charities must defend themselves robustly and clearly when challenged on an issue like executive pay, proactive attempts to change perceptions on this topic have to be more subtle.
Another approach is to try to spread good news about charities to counterbalance the bad news. Constructive Voices appears to be having some success in this area – 300 charities are now signed up to the network and coordinator Giselle Green says she has given “dozens” of charities good quality media exposure in the past year. But this can only go so far in moving the dial on public trust.
Engaging the grassroots
The scale of the challenge is illustrated by two comments in response to a blog by NCVO’s external relations manager Chloe Stables. Both emphasise that the real key to winning public trust is engaging more closely with the public, particular marginalised and disconnected groups.
One states: “Many of these groups view the charities sector as very elitist and may feel it does not speak for them. The ‘bottom-up’ leadership and empowerment approach is missing and so the voice ‘from the ground’ is absent.”
The other emphasises the need to support local infrastructure: “The growth in NCVO, and the decline in funding for local infrastructure organisations like CVSs and for NAVCA to support them over the last decade, has exacerbated the gap between community groups and ‘the sector’.”
All of this speaks to a much deeper problem, and leaves the ball back in the court of the charities themselves. Are the overall structures that charities operate fit for purpose?
The sector has largely moved on from the Victorian stereotype of Lady Bountiful distributing handouts. But perhaps there is further to go in terms of facilitating mutual aid and participation in service delivery, reflecting local circumstances and ensuring that grassroots voices are heard in decision-making.
Gareth Jones is editor of Charity Finance magazine