The Charity Commission’s reports on Public Trust in Charities should end

  1. The original intentions behind the Charity Commission’s research into public trust and confidence were understandable. Politicians wanting to cull quangos needed to hear how important the public thought the work of the Commission was. And if one of its duties specified by Parliament was to improve public trust and confidence, surely it needed a baseline and research to demonstrate how it was doing and what the drivers were? But the actual result has proved unconvincing, year after year.
  2. Here are some of the difficulties.

Is it the patient or the thermometer?

The latest in the series, published in July, shows that public trust in charities has risen a bit. But since the researchers (now called Yonder, formerly Populus) discovered that almost every other institution or profession also registered a rise in trust, in some cases more than our sector’s, it is very hard to assign much significance to any of it.

Or look at the public’s view on whether charities play an “essential” or “very important” role. That is supposed to have gone down 5 percentage points from 2008 to 2010, then up 9 per cent by 2012, then falling until 2020 and up 5 per cent again this year. Really? What can explain this yo-yo pattern on such a broad question – could it be the thermometer again?

Not comparing like with like

Trust doesn’t exist in isolation from expectations, as Onora O’Neill has repeatedly shown. What I expect from doctors is reliable medical opinion and a cure. I judge them on that and they come out well. That doesn’t mean I trust them to use charitable donations well, or run the country or tell me what’s going on in the world beyond medicine. And anyone who wants something from me arouses potential distrust – a bank with its charges, a politician wanting my vote, a charity wanting my money, whereas doctors generally in a state health service don’t want anything from me, nor (in general) policemen. On the other hand, my trust in my MP or local councillor might be influenced by whether he or she is someone I voted for or from another political party that I dislike. So we are not comparing like with like.

The public doesn’t know what is and is not a charity

There is a deeper problem. At least the public know what MPs, newspapers, social workers, policemen and doctors are. But they don’t know what is a charity and what isn’t. That is one of the clearest lessons from Charity Commission research over the years, though it doesn’t suit the Commission to admit it. In previous years, but not this year, Populus gave an explicit health warning that the severe limitations of public understanding of what charities are must always be borne in mind when interpreting the results.

What this means is that the researchers are having an earnest conversation about charities with a group who in general have in mind a narrow segment of about nine national household names and have no idea about the vastness and variety of the sector they think they are talking about.

Commenting on the research, Helen Stephenson, the Charity Commission Chief Executive, concludes that “More than ever, people need evidence that charities are not ends in themselves, but vehicles for making the world a better place, both through what they achieve, and the values they live along the way”. We hardly need the Aunt Sally that charities might be ends in themselves when every charity must be for a charitable purpose and for the public benefit, but beyond that it simply doesn’t follow from the research that the provision of more or better evidence by charities in general will make any difference whatever to future research results based on people’s attitudes to about 9 household name charities.

There is also something Monty Python-esque about asking the public for their views on the Charity Commission itself, when just on half of the sample have never heard of it at all and 81 per cent say they don’t know it even “fairly” well.

Lack of a comparative perspective on public expectations

The report and the Commission itself keep insisting that public expectations of charities are “high”, but these are not compared with those for other kinds of organisation or professions, so in fact the research does not establish whether the expectations of charities are high or not-so-high compared with those of other sectors.

Researching what they say, not what they do

It is well known that what people say and what they actually do sometimes do not tally, yet this research and its conclusions are based solely on what people say. Take the question of whether diminished trust as recorded in this kind of research actually affects the level of donations from the public. The Commission has often stated or implied that it does. Yet even in the worst year for trust in charities, 2016, only 13 per cent of the total sample said this had led them to reduce their donations. But is it true? Were they donating anything anyway? We don’t know.

Indeed, it turns out that a recent major study by the University of Queensland, as discussed by Ian MacQuillan in Third Sector on 3 August, analysing 42 different studies of this topic, has concluded that rises and falls in overall trust account for only 5 per cent of the variation in giving. That study also finds that a scandal in an individual charity does not generally harm trust in charities as a whole, contradicting another finding of the Charity Commission and Yonder, and that charity effectiveness is not a particularly strong determinant of giving either. This meta-study highlights the precarious nature of this kind of research.

Imposing a narrative on hard-to-interpret research

Given research with all those major limitations, what happens year after year is that the Commission and its researchers are tempted into selective questioning and interpretation in order to support their preferred narrative.

Sadly, for example, some loaded questions that raised eyebrows last year have been repeated. One of these shockers is asking the sample to choose between “If you are a registered charity and enjoy the benefits of that status, you have a collective responsibility to uphold the reputation of charity (sic) more generally” (sounds fair enough, surely?) versus “If you are a registered charity, your only responsibility is to uphold the reputation of your own charity” (how narrow and self-centred that sounds!). Unsurprisingly, a chunky majority vote against the latter straw man. A second shocker offers a choice between “The charity regulator should try to make sure charities fulfil their wider responsibilities to society, as well as sticking to the letter of the laws governing charitable activity” (sounds eminently sensible) versus “The charity regulator should confine its role to making sure charities stick to the letter of the laws that govern charitable activity” (sounds obviously narrow and pedantic) another straw man given the thumbs down by a majority. Such loaded questions are not good for trust and confidence in this research.

Another pattern that the Commission has been keen to impose on its research in recent years is that the public thinks charities are special and distinct and should therefore embrace higher standards than other parts of society in line with the special “spirit of charity”. Carefully assessed, the research never showed this. Importantly, the claim that the public expects higher standards of charities than of other parts of society has at last been abandoned. Both the sample of the public and a sample of Trustees are split down the middle as to whether charities’ standards of conduct and behaviour should be higher, or the same, as any other organisation. There is no consensus. All those instructions to charities from the Chair to embrace the public’s demand for higher standards than those of the rest of society turn out to have been unfounded.

But some of the rest of this supposed narrative is still there. We are told “The public believes that charities are special and distinct from other businesses and organisations because of their purpose. Therefore, they should be held to high ethical standards.” But the purposes of the NHS and other public bodies, and non-charitable voluntary organisations, are basically the same as the purposes of many charities eg promoting health, advancing education or protecting the environment. How does that make charities distinct and special? It looks as if other parts of the “special and distinct” narrative should also be abandoned.

A questionable focus on charities’ “behaviour”

The rhetoric of the Baroness Stowell years that the sector is “failing” to meet public expectations and that “the writing is on the wall” unless they change their behaviour in line with public expectations has also been scrapped. We now have “no room for complacency” instead. But the Commission continues to insist that the research reveals “a set of shared expectations about how charities should behave”, which will help them increase public trust in future years.

The runaway favourite criterion said to determine trust and confidence is that charities should spend a high (undefined) proportion of the money they raise on what is variously described as the end cause, on their beneficiaries, on charitable activities, or should go directly to the people they are helping. This is arguably not about “behaviour” at all. Moreover, it is a muddle. If it’s the end cause, every penny spent by a charity should be justified as contributing to it. If it’s charitable activities, that is a SORP definition (lost on a vast majority of the public) that excludes many activities that are vital to advancing the end cause. If it’s that a high proportion of all money raised should go straight to those who are being helped, the Commission itself is well aware of the need for larger charities to invest in overheads and fundraising; and that charities can properly pursue their objectives through political activities, research and awareness-raising rather than just helping individuals directly. And the idea of money going direct to the people being helped doesn’t apply at all to very many charities such as environmental and conservation charities, research institutes, religious charities, the arts, universities and many others.

A second “expectation about how charities should behave” is that charities should show they make a positive difference, but that is not really about “behaviour” either. It is about “accountability to donors, beneficiaries and the general public” as described in the Charities Acts [NB – all three, not just the general public] and demonstrating public benefit, two words that rarely pass the Commission’s lips these days. I cannot see how this research adds anything to this unexceptionable principle, except to downplay the accountability to donors and beneficiaries.

The third public expectation is that “how charities go about their work is as important as what they achieve”. This is glossed by the researchers as “acting charitably”, and “[ensuring] the way they go about making that impact is consistent with the spirit of “charity”” – language that remains vague and opaque. Note that the sample did not themselves see or use those words. What did they think they meant?

We don’t know. They might mean that the overriding concern is whether my donation goes straight to the people in need rather than being “wasted”. They might mean that those who handle and use donations, like those who use public money from taxes, should show reliable standards of selflessness, accountability, integrity, openness, and honesty as in the Nolan principles of public life – nothing there about any distinctive charitable behaviour either. They might mean that if you run your charity in a way that leads to scandals, that could overshadow your “achievements”. They might mean that it’s wrong to be so fixated on your goal that you allow your organisation’s culture to go toxic. Or they might mean that you can’t distinguish between ends and means in the work of many charities, such as hospices.

The truth is that we don’t know what the public mean by saying that the “how” is as important as what you achieve – perhaps all of the above? What use is such a finding?

The fourth public expectation that the research claims to reveal is that charities have a collective responsibility to nurture the public reputation of charities generally, since all charities benefit from the status and privileges conferred on them by the public. I can’t think of anyone who would object to this as a principle, but the problem is that our accountability to the wider public is only one of our responsibilities. Our principal responsibility is to our beneficiaries, and we are also accountable to our donors and supporters and other stakeholders, trying to balance conflicting priorities, and therefore to promote collective responsibility to the wider public in isolation from these principal responsibilities is one-eyed and rather unhelpful.

Enough is enough

The research is entirely uncritical of the beliefs and opinions it is reporting. It is as if, as Baroness Stowell came very near to expressing, the public must always be right. You must try to interpret what they say into something sensible and useful, even if it is ill-informed. This vast gap between the often poorly informed views of “the public” and universal, useful lessons for such a diverse sector as charities, is the quagmire into which the Commission and its researchers fall together year after year.

This research series is not accomplishing the good intentions with which it began. It has proved too difficult. It is not the area of the Commission’s authority and expertise. Perhaps it is time to climb out of the quagmire. Enough is enough.


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