Survey finds that the public’s trust in charities has dropped, but also highlights some positives, and areas for improvement

OK, given that this week is The Gathering and a celebration of charities, let’s start with some good news! Trust and confidence in charities remains high in Scotland, particularly where there is a personal connection. More than three-quarters of respondents to our recent survey gave the charities they are familiar with scores of 6/10 and above for trust – no significant change from when we ran the survey in 2015. And a fifth gave the charities they engage with a top score of 10 out of 10.

Our survey also showed that huge numbers of Scottish households engage with charities, with more than 8 out of 10 households accessing charity-run services, from community centres to clubs, from social care to advice. So that’s a lot of people engaging with us and trusting us.

The not so good news is that trust in charities overall has dropped, down from 82% agreeing that charities are trustworthy and act in the public interest, to 73% agreeing. Only 15% actually disagree that charities are trustworthy, but that’s 15% to many. We still score higher for trust than the UK and other UK regions, but that’s mainly because trust south of the border has taken a hammering in recent years. And we still score far higher than most other sectors such as politicians, banks and newspapers… but then we really should, shouldn’t we?

We originally commissioned our2015 survey into public trust to inform work we were doing around fundraising, particularly in the wake of the negative publicity around charity fundraising practices. But while fundraising is important, trust is about much more than keeping donors happy. Trust is closely linked to how people view charities and their activities, and how they view the charity ‘brand’. People hold charities to very high standards, and when we are seen to fail our beneficiaries or fall below the highest ethical standards, trust can drop. Trust can affect how confident people are in charities activities and services: are the services we provide top quality? Is the advice we give reliable? And how the public sector views charities is just as important. It’s easier for government to ignore criticism from the third sector if charities don’t have the full support of the general public. It’s also easier for government to put restrictive conditions on funding – or withdraw it completely – if there is any suggestion that public funds are not being utilised as well as they should be.

It’s easy for charities to become a bit defensive when our trustworthiness is called into question – of course we’re doing the right thing, it’s just a few negative stories, a few bad apples, the public don’t understand us.

But we do need to listen to what the public are saying.

While a healthy 77% believe that charities play an important role in their community, 9% were neutral and 13% disagreed. Is it really the case that 22% of people don’t think their community benefits from charities? Or is it more a lack of awareness of what all sits under the ‘charity’ umbrella? Maybe we as a sector need to do more to explain the many varied roles that modern charities play right across Scottish communities today.

Another key thing that came out of our survey is that 2 in every 5 respondents (38%) agreed that recent stories in the media have made them lose confidence in charities. While it might be easy to blame newspapers looking for ‘bad charity’ stories, we also need to recognise that many stories do highlight poor practice. When the fundraising stories came out a few years ago, I naively thought that the stories must be wrong – it wasn’t just a case of what was ethically, it was just common sense that you wouldn’t treat your supporters like this. The general public’s response to recent media stories about Oxfam highlight not just the complexity and importance of the issues, but also showed that the general public is capable of understanding nuanced and difficult issues.

1 in 5 members of the public we surveyed agreed that personal experiences have had a negative impact on their trust. Older and younger people in particular seem to be experiencing negative personal experiences. Given the restrictions of the survey we were only really able to ask Yes/No questions, and not dig into what is behind people’s responses, but we need to explore this further and find out what is going on. The divide between ‘media’ and ‘personal experience’ also becomes increasingly blurred when social media is added to the mix, making it harder to disentangle the personal from word of mouth, and from media.

What is clearer is that charities can’t react by being prickly and defensive. When media stories or public perceptions are inaccurate we need to get better at explaining what it is we do and why. We need to treat these as questions, not accusations. And when media and the pubic are justifiably angry or disillusioned, then we need to listen and tackle those issues, and make sure we have the right checks and balances in place going forward.

In summary, our survey showed that Scottish charities still enjoy a great deal of support and trust. As a sector we need to ask ourselves not how we keep that trust, but how do we ensure we deserve it.