Helen Stephenson: Public attitudes to charity - and why they matter

05 Nov 2018 Voices

Last month, we launched the Charity Commission’s new strategy to 2023. At its heart, that strategy has an ambitious, positive purpose: to ensure charities can thrive and inspire trust so that charity can improve lives and strengthen society. 

This is the first time we have acknowledged that regulation is not an end in itself. If our work is to have meaning and value, we have to think beyond the fulfilment of functions – registration, guidance, investigations – and set our sights and our ambitions higher: what we do, and how we do it, have ultimately to help maximise the benefit that charity provides in our society.

Our new strategy therefore ties our success directly to the collective success of those we regulate. Not because it is our job to champion individual charities. But because we serve the public, and we know that the public stands to benefit immeasurably from a charity sector that reaches its potential, including the potential to bridge growing divides that in other societies are slowly undermining democracies and social cohesion. Charity is one of our most precious national assets, it distinguishes our society and makes us proud as a nation. We all need it to do as much good as it possibly can. 

This ambitious aim requires us, and the charities we regulate, to address a challenge, a hurdle currently in the path of charities reaching their potential. And that is that the public do not, at this time, give charities as institutions the benefit of the doubt. The public value voluntary effort, generosity, and care for others. But they are not, currently, convinced that charities as organisations are delivering those values. We know this from robust research into the factors that drives public trust, including biennial research last published in July of this year. 

Charity sector insiders sometimes suggest that we shouldn’t place too much heed by evidence of public attitudes. People have said that, by naming this challenge, the Commission is simply aggravating the situation – by implication suggesting that our role is to persuade the public rather than understand their legitimate concerns. I also often hear that people’s  concerns about charity are transitory, spurred on by a hostile media intent on magnifying cases of wrongdoing out of all proportion to the benefit charities deliver. If only we – and the media – spoke more about the benefits of charity, public support and trust would bounce back, so goes the argument. 

That argument may seem reasonable at first glance. But unpack it a little, and what you find is the assumption that what ordinary people think and feel is fickle, possibly misguided, certainly misinformed - and should not be taken seriously. 

As the regulator, we cannot accept that assumption. Not just because we serve the public, and promote the public interest. But also because we know how heavily reliant charity is on public goodwill for its funding, support and financial privileges. 

And so, during the summer, and as part of our strategic review, we set out to examine more closely the expectations different parts of the public have of charity. This was a ground-breaking attempt to understand the perspectives ordinary people bring to their view of the work done by the sector we regulate.

What that work revealed is fascinating, and in some senses paradoxical: there is no such thing as a single strand of public opinion; diverse attitudes to charity result from a complex interaction between who people are and how and where they live. And yet, despite this considerable diversity, there is near universal agreement on the fundamental expectations people have of charity. 

How and why people’s attitudes vary

We found that outlooks are shaped by an interplay between an individual's sense of health, wealth and well-being on the one hand (security) and how much alike they are to their geographical neighbours on the other (diversity). 

So, for example, whether people are sympathetic or not towards charity CEOs receiving large salaries, how supportive they are of the global role played by some UK charities, and the extent to which people prize professionalism or voluntary participation more highly: all turn out to be related to people's place on this map of security and diversity.

This work allowed us to identify six distinct strands of public opinion which help us consider and understand people's attitudes towards charities. 

Group One

This group is made up of people who score highly on security but who live in quite socially homogeneous communities. Often older and wealthier, these people are successful and respect success generally. They are content to allow charities to get on with delivering their benefits provided they can be trusted to do so. 

Group two 

These people are again often older and retired; they prefer charities that are local and volunteer-led. They prize integrity over results when it comes to charitable activity. 

Group three

This group is slightly less secure but equally non-diverse. They want to see charities sticking to the law, treated with the same scepticism as other parts of society and named and shamed if they fall short. 

Group four

Next is a group of people who are among the most challenging for anyone to engage whether as direct beneficiaries of charitable work or more broadly as stakeholders. These are the least secure and most pessimistic in our society and the sense of alienation among this population is sometimes a breeding ground for political extremism. 

Group five

The next strand scores highly on diversity. It contains many students and young people and is the most radical in outlook of all the strands. Global in its outlook and conscious of inequalities at home and abroad, this group of people supports charities generally, and those who address injustice in particular. 

Group six

The final strand are those who support professionally-run charities and the wider role that charities play in our society. These people score highly on both the diversity and security scales. They welcome the global footprint of some of our larger charities and are comfortable with the large salaries sometimes paid out to those in charge of complex organisations. These are typically the people that charities spend most of their time talking to. 

So there are different strands of opinion, some with opposing and strongly-held views. No one group has the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ take on charity; all demand respect. 

How and why the public agree on the basics

However, all our research and evidence points to universal agreement, across all groups and attitudes, on one basic expectation: that all charities should meet high standards of behaviour and attitude. Different groups arrive at this conviction for different reasons: some because they are aware of the power disparity that can exist between charities and their vulnerable beneficiaries; others simply demand that charities are not given a ‘free pass’ to behave badly because of the good they aim to do. This unity of expectation, when set against the wider diversity of outlook on charity among the population, is significant, and it’s the reason our strategy places such emphasis on holding charities to account for their behaviour. 

Regulating in the public interest does not mean making some decisions because they may be popular or avoiding others because they may not meet with public favour. We are independent, and we will continue to be guided by a legal framework in our engagement with individual charities. But in setting our strategic priorities, it is vital that we listen to diverse groups in society, and that we continue to take their views seriously. Charities, similarly, should not dismiss, belittle or ignore peoples’ views, just because they are inconvenient. They cannot please everyone in the causes they espouse and the work they do. But they can and should aim to behave in ways that meet universal public expectations of what it means to be a charity. 

So let us stop trying to persuade the public that their perspective is wrong and instead work together, the Commission and charities, to show that being a charity means something that everyone can buy into.  And I am convinced that if we get that right, we can ensure that charity thrives and meets its undoubted potential for good. 

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