This is a guest blog by Ian Allsop, who is a freelance writer, editor and commentator on charity sector issues. Amongst other things, he is contributing editor to Charity Finance and editor of the Charity Finance Yearbook
“Do you have trust in charities?” Is it something you have ever thought about? I suspect most people don’t pay it much attention. Sure, they may notice the odd scandal that explodes onto the front pages, but do such events really affect their general perception of charities? Bad publicity may help entrench the attitudes of people who already misunderstand what charities actually do – you know, those who think it is disgraceful that charity employees are greedy enough to expect to be paid – but once the initial furore of whatever today’s outrage is has calmed down, has it really made a difference to the public’s inherent confidence in and admiration for the valuable work of civil society?
The one thing that may arguably affect levels of trust is people being repeatedly asked if they trust something. Then rather than it being taken for granted, it perhaps leads them to become suspicious and consider the reasons why they should in fact not trust charities.
The latest high profile media feeding frenzy has been the Presidents Club, which perhaps surprisingly didn’t involve Trump, despite its name and the nature of the allegations. In case you have been living under a cliché, this is about a charity, which held a men-only fundraising dinner. Men-only that is apart from liberally dressed hostesses, who were reportedly humiliated and sexually harassed.
While the Club itself has been forced to close, I don’t necessarily think it will harm the wider charity sector and trust. People’s anger has been directed more at the organisers of the event and the men who think it acceptable to attend these things.
Such dinners raise up to £2million for good causes (though can cost over £0.5m a year to organise, according to the Presidents Club’s latest accounts). One of the recipients of the money, Great Ormond Street Hospital, responded swiftly, distancing themselves from the tainted loot. While there are complicated technical legal issues around whether a charity can return a donation (and the Charity Commission would definitely have to get involved if the President’s Club itself refused the re-donation of their donation, or is wound up quickly) the instinctive reaction from a reputational risk point of view was to steer well clear. Being seen to do the right thing. Protecting trust.
Except it isn’t always as simple as that. The Sun has since published a story criticising GOSH, saying parents of children previously treated at the hospital are angry that the money will be returned. One of them was quoted as saying “the hospital does rely so heavily on charitable donations and this is a lot of money which could pay for a lot of things and save lives”, before adding the caveat “as a woman, I do not agree with what happened at the gala”, which apart from anything else implies that “as a man, I do”.
Now this is classic tabloid behaviour – prolonging the outrage of a story as much as possible, and exploiting people with an emotional link to the hospital, to take the deeply contradictory, hypocritical moral high ground. And while there is a view that it is better to take any donation, no matter how unethical its source may be, and do good with it, it all seems dangerously close to someone arguing that “sick kids will die unless rich blokes get to grope attractive young dolly birds”.
GOSH were quoted as explaining that the “the expert medical treatment that children receive at the hospital will not be affected by the return of these donations. The day-to-day care and running of GOSH is entirely paid for by the NHS.” But the headline has already done the damage.
So following all of the various media coverage, “do you have trust in charities?” Yes, a damn sight more than I do in the gutter press. I would argue that an ex government minister for civil society hypothetically saying Oxfam has disappeared up its own posterior is a bigger problem in terms of overall trust in the sector, but luckily I am sure nobody, least of all Rob Wilson, would utter such a thing.
The question asked after incidents such Presidents Club is how can individual charities, and the sector overall, rebuild trust? But do they even need to? Trust levels peaked at 64% early in 2017 before settling back to 60%, according to nfpSynergy’s annual Trust in Charity report. Charities were ranked just behind the NHS, the Armed Forces, the police, and schools for most trusted public institution, up from 12th place in 2015 (the year of a wealth of fundraising scandals). All good stuff, and an indication that when trust has been knocked down in the past, it has quickly rebuilt itself easily enough.
But then, it is a matter of interpretation. And if you wanted to suggest there was a problem with trust (which in itself risks undermining trust – a self-fulfilling prophecy) then one headline in the sector press, which said “Trust in charities fell back in 2017 from relative high”, would do it. It uses the same information but seems a lot less positive.
While levels of trust were clearly affected by the fundraising scandals of a couple of years ago, and the media fixation with Olive Cooke, levels of donations haven’t suffered dramatically for the charities named and shamed, or for the big flagship appeals such as Children in Need. And the year after being criticised for the ethical tone of some of its investments, Comic Relief enjoyed a record Red Nose Day.
Admittedly, NCVO’s latest sector wide figures are for 2014/15 so the impact on the sector as a whole following that coverage cannot properly be assessed, but I don’t think people generally give less or to different causes specifically due to scandals. It is more complex than that. But clearly, this doesn’t mean that the sector should be complacent and take the public’s continued support for granted.
Taking a stand against sexual harassment, being aware of powerful new digital ways of campaigning and advocacy as evidenced by the #metoo and #timesup hashtags, and not using morally dubious fundraising tactics are all lessons to be learnt from recent events that will certainly help maintain and possibly enhance trust.
Some might say that the whole thing is an overreaction and that the people who will suffer are the beneficiaries of the charities supported by the Presidents Club. Or that it will make people wary of being involved in fundraising activities for fear of any backlash. But actually there are plenty of enjoyable ways to raise money without involving non-disclosure agreements and skimpy uniforms. And already an alternative Presidents Club has been formed to make up any shortfall to the charities who will be affected by the demise of the original. Responding to a negative situation with a solution is surely the very essence of charity.
Yes it was a charity that organised the grubby dinner. But that shouldn’t soil things for everyone else, and as long as every other charity that didn’t host such an event reacts in the right way, I think trust will be fine, thanks. Trust me. But just in case, perhaps the last thing we should be doing is constantly asking people, “do you have trust in charities?”