Public Trust in Charities? Let’s not play the hypochondriac with a dodgy thermometer.

Make no mistake:  public trust and confidence in charities matter. They enjoy privileged status, including over £5 billion in tax relief in England and Wales in the year to March 2016. From the public come our donors and volunteers. As many sensible people have warned, that cannot be taken for granted.

On the other hand, perhaps the fact that we are so frightened of losing that trust sometimes causes us to become unhinged when trying to test it and talk about it.

The public is enormous and amorphous, so it is extraordinarily difficult to pronounce reliably on the state of mind of such a diverse mass, especially on the basis of a sample of 1000 plus deeper exploration in tiny focus groups. We have all learned from the General Election how the most sophisticated pollsters can get it wrong.

I enter the caveat that I am not a statistician, understand little about statistical methods and know nothing about how different statistical bodies are authenticated. So if there were a sample of 1000 or so people a bit like me in those respects, findings about a shift in our trust in statistics or our opinions about how well statistical bodies are regulated would not be worth very much. And at least I know what the word “statistic” means.

Not so with trust and confidence in charities. Many members of the public do not know what a charity is. For example, one in five of all charities includes the advancement of religion as its charitable objective, but how many of the public know that churches and  other religious bodies are charities when they reply? How many are thinking about universities, or academy schools, or arts and sports organisations? If they don’t know what is included in the charity sector, on what are they basing their views on whether to trust it? A small number of household names described as charities which they have seen in advertisements or read about in the newspapers?

It is a consistent finding that, in general, those who are close to charities and know them from personal experience are substantially more likely to express trust and confidence than those who do not, so part of the findings about trust and confidence ( not all) is a measure of how ignorant the respondents are about what charities actually are and do.

There is a striking example in the  latest research by Populus for the Charity Commission, published in June 2016. Unaided,  only 32 per cent of the sample said that they or their close families or friends had ever benefited from or used the services of a charity. But when a short list of typical charities and charitable services was provided, the percentage rose to 94 per cent! That is a gaping knowledge deficit, affecting our interpretation of expressions of trust and confidence based on such a sample. Over half of the Populus sample agreed that they knew very little about how charities are run and managed, so their views on how ethical, effective or trustworthy charities are must be seen in that light. Three quarters of the sample told Populus that they were more likely to trust a charity if they had heard of it. Well, yes. So what does it  actually mean when a minority one third of the sample say their confidence in charities has declined when many of them don’t know what a charity is and may not have heard of more than a handful of charities (as they understand them to be) at all? And, in most cases, vastly underestimate the real number and contribution of local charities?

Now note that in the Commission’s 2014 research the figure equivalent to that 32 per cent (those thinking they or their friends had been affected in some way by a charity) was 40 per cent. So that means that the number of the public in 2016 saying that they or anyone they know had ever received any benefit from a charity tumbled by 8 per cent in two years. But wait a minute, the figure in 2012 was 34 per cent, so the level of perception of charitable activity rose by 6 per cent in 2014, then fell by 8 per cent in 2016?   Is it not likely that our thermometer is subject to a significant  margin of meaningless fluctuation?

The same suspicion arises when we consider the nfpSynergy monitoring of public trust and confidence since 2003. Noting an apparently puzzling drop from 66 per cent in 2013 to 56 per cent in 2014,  Joy Dobbs who did a judicious overview of such research for NCVO pointed out that there had been “a number of fluctuations in this measure of levels of trust since it was first collected”. On 26 August 2015 Third Sector carried the alarming news that “Public trust in charities is at lowest level since 2007” at 53 per cent, using nfpSynergy data collected before the Olive Cooke affair. Confusingly, on 6 July 2016, after the Olive Cooke affair, and just after the Charity Commission published its 2016 research suggesting a significant fall in trust and confidence, Third Sector carried the cheering news that according to nfpSynergy public trust was returning.  55 per cent of people trusted charities quite a lot or a great deal, compared with 48 per cent 6 months’ before, and in the 55 to 64 age group confidence had shot up by 16 per cent! The worst ever result had been 2007, when trust and confidence tanked at 42 per cent. (Crickey, what on earth was going on in 2007?) But it rose to an all time high of 70 per cent in January 2010.

I attribute this result to my period of office as a Board Member of the Charity Commission, which I left in 2010, after which confidence has never been the same again.

Only joking. Seriously, though, I am a great admirer of much of the work of nfpSynergy and its thought provoking insights on many different subjects, and I do not have their statistical expertise, but is this thermometer reliable enough?

And when OSCR produced similar figures for Scotland showing trust and confidence at only 61 per cent in 2011, 68 per cent in 2014 and 64 per cent in 2016, three points ahead of 2011 despite the UK media stories, should we be racking our brains trying to explain why things were worse in 2011, and what improvements can explain the rise in 2014, or is it the thermometer challenge again?

Let us return to what is regarded as the authoritative Populus research for the Charity Commission with which I began. We already noted a suspiciously hard-to-explain tumble in numbers reporting that they had been helped by or used a charity. I don’t myself take seriously the reported 5 per cent fall since 2014 in members of the public who had heard of the Charity Commission. Nor, when only 50 per cent of the sample had even heard of the Charity Commission, and over half admit they know nothing about the running or operation of charities, can one place much weight on the finding that 60 per cent of the sample believe that charities are well regulated. When they are asked which charities they trust the most, and the least, it is notable that some of the same big names come up in a slightly different order on both lists. Why? Surely because there is such a small pool of charities that many people have heard of (and know are charities) at all.

Despite all these thermometer problems, one must give the benefit of the doubt to the core finding that the measure of public trust and confidence that had remained stable for some years at 6.7 fell to 5.7 in 2016, even though the measure for other sectors remained stable. Note that 67 per cent of the sample said that their trust and confidence had remained the same (or, for 6 per cent,  increased), but 33 per cent, or 359 individuals, said it had decreased. Of that minority of 359, 65 per cent (some 236 people) attributed their decreased trust and confidence to hostile media stories about charities or how charities spend their money. 21 per cent of the minority, ie 75 people (out of a total 1089), said their trust had decreased because they don’t trust charities (sic) or, slightly more meaningfully, that they didn’t know what they did with their money, while a further 18 per cent of the minority (64 people) blamed pressurizing fundraising techniques, which again may often have been picked up from or reinforced by media stories. A fair summary seems to be that a one third minority of the sample, many of whom know little about charities or what they are, have principally remembered and been troubled by.hostile stories in the media, whilst the overall trust and confidence of the two thirds majority, who tend on average to know more about charities, was apparently unaffected, even though they may have been equally troubled by media coverage of particular cases.

It has been argued that the media stories were reflecting what people were thinking about charities anyway, but in that case I am not entirely clear why previous trust and confidence measures were higher.

There have been important, realistic recommendations on the way ahead by the likes of Karl Wilding of the NCVO, Sarah Atkinson of the Charity Commission, and Joe Saxton of nfpSynergy, sometimes in the context of such published research  (even if the research itself is uneven). Good. We should all put our backs into the excellent efforts being made to improve the performance and governance of the sector, to explain what charities actually are and communicate their messages better. Let us do it above all for the long term good of our beneficiaries, for the inherent importance of transparency, accountability, respect for donors as human beings (not ATM machines), and a responsible awareness that we enjoy great privileges because of a long term implied bargain of mutual benefit between the sector and the public.  But that does not require putting unrealistic weight on fluctuating thermometer readings of what “the public” is thinking.




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