There’s no silver bullet to improving public trust (but there’s lots we can do!)

There’s no silver bullet to improving public trust (but there’s lots we can do!)

Felicity Spencer-Smith | 3 December 2018

What’s the best way to respond and increase trust and confidence in charities? An expert panel of fundraisers gathered to discuss trust for the final session of last week’s Individual Giving Conference 2018. Felicity summarises the key points of discussion.

The question of public trust in the charity sector is one that is continually asked and debated, and perhaps more so this year following the international safeguarding scandal. The feelings of trust and confidence in the sector is something that is looked at through regular sector research, as well as being high on the agenda of the media and this year we’ve all been kept on our toes as the narrative has developed over 2018.

While often it seems that trust in the charity sector is presented with doom and gloom, research from the Charity Commission actually shows that charities have moved up a place in the rankings of how much the public trust different institutions, while evidence from nfpSynergy shows that trust in the charity sector is stable despite seeing a slight decline influenced by these stories. But that’s no reason for complacency – with charities raising around £11bn in donations from individuals, plus the contribution of volunteers and engagement in campaigns, we need to take public trust seriously. But what should charities actually be doing in practice? What’s the best way to respond and increase trust and confidence? And what role should fundraising play? These and many others were the questions asked at last week’s Individual Giving Conference 2018, with a panel of fundraising experts chaired by Joe Saxton.

It was a lively discussion with some really interesting observations on what we can do to contribute towards improving trust;

Fundraisers should be open, transparent and confident about how donations are spent

Think about what key topics of conversation will reassure your donors. It’s likely that they want to know that the charity they have donated to is well stewarded, how much money is going to the beneficiaries, and that the charity is living by its values.

Paul Amadi, Chief Supporter Officer atthe British Red Cross, says that each fundraiser needs to be able to confidently defend and explain fundraising processes, including explaining executive pay or that it costs money to run their services. If we don’t, these stories will reappear again and again.

However, Paul explained, “The responsibility cannot lie in fundraising. Our brand colleagues, our colleagues in comms, and the finance team can enable us to tell a better narrative and how much it costs. We don’t have all the answers in the fundraising team, but we need to tell the story from a position of confidence.”

Be a ‘critical friend’ to charities around you

Richard Taylor, Executive Director of Fundraising, Marketing and Communications, pointed out behaviour of a few charities chipped away trust for the sector as a whole. He warns against charities making quick fixes and pretending they’ve done all they need to, and therefore “defending the indefensible”. We can remedy this by encouraging individual charities to be better practiced at managing their own crises.

Rebecca Munro, Communications, Fundraising and Policy Director at RSPB, added that in recent scandals, nobody stood up to defend nor condemn charity behaviour. As a community, we can avoid creating complicit silence and look to be a critical friend to others.

“You can’t comms yourself out of bad behaviour”

We can’t be incredulous when caught out for bad behaviour, even if 99.9% of what we do is good, says Laurie Boult Director of Fundraising at Age UK. “It’s so critical that we get on the front foot, to know what the issues are before the media story gets too far.”

Guy Upward, Assistant Director of Fundraising at the Royal British Legion, remarked that rather than ask how we can insulate ourselves against media stories, charities need to aim to be transparent from the beginning.

Richard Taylor shared a memorable saying that’s popular at Macmillan – “you can’t comms yourself out of bad behaviour”. He shared the practice of making a ‘decision tree’, a series of questions and processes that can be followed before coming to a decision. The tree acts as a tool to give staff more confidence in the decisions made, knowing that the action was decided as a joint effort with reasoning backing it up.

Pivot continually to innovate

Paul Amadi remarked that we, as a community, have come so far in the past ten years. Unlike other sectors, practices from ten years ago simply aren’t being done anymore and that’s because we’re constantly pivoting. Looking to the future, fundraisers are looking at improving and diversifying their demographic target audiences – age, ethnicity, location. “We don’t know what we’re pivoting towards but with the combined creativity and passion from the community, I know it will be a good place.”

Excellent fundraising will raise trust and confidence

The conversations across our membership will no doubt continue. And it’s right that they do – the right way to think about public trust is not about trying to get the ‘right’ answer to a single question, but to continually critique and improve what we’re doing, respond to developments, and to keep challenging ourselves to do better. No single charity can ‘fix’ public trust, but every charity can be trustworthy in its fundraising – that means being clear and honest, giving people choices and respecting that, and doing what you say! It’s also about responding confidently to questions from supporters and not shying away. All these actions make up part of excellent fundraising.

I’ll leave you with a question posed by Joe Saxton: if you were interviewed by Eamon Holmes, what would you do; apologise and let the berating continue, or defend your charity and assert that the scandal isn’t that bad? The answer is never simple, but is an interesting one to think about as we examine our operations.

Felicity Spencer-Smith, External Affairs Officer at the IoF