“Trust and Confidence” ? A Reality Check

Whenever I hear a statement about public trust and confidence in charities, or the Charity Commission, like Herman Goering I reach for my revolver.

I argued this time last year that the bewildering ups and downs in poll results on this subject over the years have often had more to do with the dodgy thermometer than the health of the patient.

The research conducted each year by Populus for the Charity Commission, reported by Civil Society News yesterday, is more reliable than most, but still deserves a dose of scepticism. As usual, the Commission’s Sarah Atkinson spoils the fun by making sensible comments on the subject that would be persuasive even if the research had never been done. But let’s take our own detached look anyway.

The main focus this year is public trust and confidence in the Commission rather than in charities, which is potentially more meaningful. But note that of the public sample of about 1000, 39 per cent had never heard of the Charity Commission at all before the conversation with the pollsters. And of the 61 per cent who had, only 32 per cent claimed to know the Commission at least “fairly” well. So 68 per cent of the sample might know the Commission about as well as I know Ofwat or Ofgem. I assure you that my views on how well those two bodies are regulating their sectors are not worth having.

There also appear to be some contradictions in the views of this sample, since public trust in the Commission comes out the same at 6.0, whereas there is a decline in trust in charity regulation and only 47 per cent of the public say that the Commission is an effective regulator. I think what this is telling us is that these opinions probably do not add up to a row of beans. Charities have the advantage of knowing what the Commission is and having some real experience of regulation, and their opinion is more complimentary and much more worth measuring: over three quarters of the charity sample regarded the Commission as effective.

Now let us turn to what the Populus research tells us about public trust and confidence in charities. Up until last year, the level of trust in charities as measured in this series had consistently been somewhere between 6.3 and 6.7. Last year, there was a fall to 5.7 because one third of the sample who tended to know least about the charity sector said their trust had been weakened, mainly because of derogatory media coverage. Now the index has returned to 6.3. Too much was made of the fall last year, and we should not make too much of the return to grace this year. We must remember that many of those being questioned have only the haziest notion of what a charity is, and the notion of the minority who said their trust was weakened last year was hazier than of the majority whose trust was unaffected.

Members of the public who were aware that they had benefitted from the services of a charity during the year was said last year to be 19 per cent, this time 31 per cent. I am suspicious about any claim that there has been a genuine change of awareness of this dimension in such a short time (last year the level of awareness was said to have fallen by a significant percentage). But what was found last time was that, when the same people were presented with a simple list of actual charities, the 19 per cent was transformed to well over 90 per cent: the original figure was telling us, principally, that the sample knew very little about which organisations are charities and which are not. All the findings need to be interpreted with that in mind.

For example, this year’s research is said to show a 13 per cent drop in the number of the public who say they trust charities to work independently, even though trust in charities has gone up from 5.7 to 6.3. I suggest that this finding is virtually meaningless. And be careful when the public finds that charities are less trustworthy than educational institutions, many of which are…charities!

There is a danger that, despite the limitations of surveys into public trust and confidence, we set too much store by them. The stakeholders interviewed by Populus, many of whom are in positions of influence, think that trust and confidence in the charity sector is at a low point. The Independent Review of civil society led by Julia Unwin put out a piece a couple of months ago assuming that public trust and confidence had declined catastrophically. Those who challenge such assumptions for lack of solid evidence are at once suspected of complacency, but over-reaction to opinions expressed by those with a hazy knowledge of what charities are has its own dangers.

I am glad that we do not have “PUBLIC CONFIDENCE SOARS!” headlines this time. I wish we had had less “FALLS TO ALL TIME LOW”  or “TRUSTED LESS THAN THE ORDINARY MAN OR WOMAN IN THE STREET” last time.

There are some other interesting findings in the research which deserve a separate blog.

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