How can charities win back public trust?

by Sarah Harris|May 11 2016|Blog
Charity public trust

It seems incredible that public trust in charities has fallen to such a point that the above question is currently being discussed so openly throughout the UK. At a time when villainy within big business and governments has never been clearer – from the laundering of drug money at one of the worlds biggest banks, to the everyday corporate greed exhibited by one of the UK’s fattest retail cats, all the way to the bald-faced atrocities being committed by a president against his own people in the Middle East – you would think that public perception of charities as a rare source of humanity in a sea of horror would only grow stronger.


However, in the UK, public trust in charities has never been lower. Perhaps as an example of our human tendency to turn most vehemently upon those we consider to be most virtuous, it has taken comparatively few negative high profile stories to drive public sentiment towards the charitable sector to new lows. According to a poll conducted in November by NfpSynergy, a research consultancy operating in the not-for profit sector, the proportion of UK adults who say that they trust charities “quite a lot” or a “great deal” is now 48%. This is down from 53% in April 2015 and an astonishing 22% below the reading taken in 2010, when 70% of the public had high levels of trust in charities.


Arguably, the first inflection point was the tragic death of pensioner and poppy appeal seller Olive Cook, who committed suicide in May 2015 after reportedly being hounded by several charities for donations. As a number of reports have since revealed, older people are prime fundraising targets for charities; many have lived through the trauma of a world war, and so are given more to charity than those of us who have enjoyed relatively gilded lives. In this sad death, perhaps many of us recognised our own vulnerable grandparents, and this unleashed some anger at the way in which this group is repeatedly taken advantage of by modern scammers and fraudsters, with charities arguably taking a lot of unwarranted heat.


The second was of course the spectacular failure of children’s charity Kids Company, led by eccentric chief executive Camila Batmanghelidjh, in October last year. The charity, which helped vulnerable children in impoverished UK communities via counselling, mentoring and even handing out cash for food, received over £40 million in government funding by the time of its collapse; indeed a large cheque was received just days before it folded. This has understandably raised some very serious questions about due diligence within the Treasury accounts department. It has also prompted some very vitriolic outpouring against Batmanghelidjh, her staff and the charity’s executive board. Conservative critics that had been chomping at the bit for a pop at the colourful diva of the third sector argued she was negligent, irresponsible and even unhinged. Accusations of child abuse were even levelled at Kids Company.


Breeding discontent


These two stories have arguably done more damage to the charitable sector in one year than every tale of irresponsible lending, PPI miss-selling, LIBOR rigging and drug money laundering combined has done to the financial sector since 2008. And while, as highlighted above, we are prone to be more disappointed when those we venerate fail us more than we are when greedy people do greedy things, nonetheless the levels of bile directed at charities over the past 12 months has been quite remarkable.


The mood of discontent laid the ground for the government to introduce a new clause into grant agreements designed to gag charities, banning them from running ‘politically influential’ awareness campaigns with any public funds funneled through the Treasury. This in turn prompted BBC Radio 4 to run a programme on the subject featuring vile outpourings from the serpentine Michael Portillo that truly made by blood run cold. The message here is that charities like Oxfam and Save the Children can feed and clothe the poor, but they had damn well better not talk about why they are poor.


These two stories are highly specific cases and we can’t lay all the blame for the charity sector’s fallings at their door. As a number of reports have suggested, the underling cause of public displeasure is, in-fact, far more likely rooted in the way in which charities have become big businesses. From often aggressive fundraising tactics to high levels of pay for chief executives and board members, there is a feeling that even The Samaritans have become nothing more that creepy corporates baying for our spare pounds like dogs scrapping over a bone.


The Madonna and the whore


But here’s the rub: charities are not governments. They do not have pools of public money raised through taxes to dip into when they need to pay their staff, without which none of the money, goods or services that we donate can be distributed. Without who we would not even know the charity even existed. Charities need business models; they need money and they need staff and those staff cannot just be minimum wage kitchen workers, they need to include high powered, influential CEO’s that governments will listen to, PR teams to raise awareness and those indefatigable student fundraisers that get paid accordingly for the abuse thrown at them every day (but who are none the less really annoying). Yet, we remain deeply uncomfortable with this.


Recently I read that ex Labour MP David Miliband is paid £425,000 a year for heading refugee charity International Rescue. This made me uncomfortable. But why? Within this full time role Miliband oversees humanitarian aid and development programs in 40 different countries, the budget for which is £450 million a year. In comparison, the CEO of oil and gas major Exxon Mobil Rex Tillerson took home $40.3 million (£28 million) in 2012. That’s £76,640 per day. Let me just type that again – the CEO of Exxon Mobil earns £76,640 PER DAY. Tillerson earns Miliband’s entire annual salary between 1 and 6 January of any given year. And last year Martin Sorell, head of UK advertising giant WPP, earned it in just two and a half days thanks to a record breaking £63 million pay package.

So why the outpouring of hatred when someone heading a charity is paid a paltry fraction of that which the heads of an oil and gas multinational and advertising behemoth enjoy? Isn’t what David Miliband is doing more valuable by any moral standard? The attitude underlines a schizophrenic form of thinking. Like an entitled, philandering male feels towards his wife and his mistress, we want our charities to be virginal; we want them to be institutional saints that feed the poor with nothing more than a tear and a prayer. Meanwhile we are happy to pour our money into the engines of our sexy cars and to buy the exciting products sold to us on ten-foot high billboards. And so perhaps the question should not be how the public can learn to trust charities again, but how charities can find a way to trust the public.

Rebecca Jones is former deputy editor of Money Observer magazine and a regular commentator on issues surrounding sustainable, responsible investing. She has been writing about finance and investment since 2011 and is a big fan of cats. You can find her tweeting at @rebeccaejones.


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