On the 27th of June we published the findings of our Scottish Charity Surveys, which included the Scottish public’s score for trust in charities. The next day the Charity Commission for England and Wales published their public trust and confidence research results, and last week saw the launch of the Charity Commission for Northern Ireland’s results.
The headline figures for trust are interesting, but there’s a lot more we can learn from the research to help us understand the sector and shape our approach to regulating charities.
Public trust and confidence in charities
Overall, Scottish trust in charities remains strong, with 64% of the public scoring trust in charities six or more out of ten, compared to 68% in 2014. It was lower in 2011 at 61%. We have seen a move away from those scoring trust at the very highest levels, resulting in a decrease in the mean from 6.35 in 2014 to 6.08 in 2016. In England and Wales, after a number of years of very stable figures, there has been a drop in trust in charities, from a mean score of 6.7 in 2014 to 5.7 in 2016. In Northern Ireland, the very first round of scores for public trust resulted in a sound starting point of 6.2.
As the regulator for 24,000 charities we’re aware of the huge contribution these organisations make to society and the economy, but we’re also aware that the environment for charities has been changing. As the economic climate has changed, the funding environment has also changed and charities have developed different relationships with their funders. It was not a surprise to learn that funding remains the most important issue facing 47% of charities. Where funding is such an issue, it is also not a surprise that charities sometimes look to public donations to meet the shortfall with new or increased fundraising, or diversify their funding streams. And in some cases, it is these pressures and activities that have resulted in the sort of press and media scrutiny we have seen over the last year or so.
Our vision is for charities you can trust and that provide public benefit, so it is essential that we understand the factors that influence trust so we can prioritise our regulatory actions and reflect public concerns. We know that public trust is important for donations (81% of the Scottish public say so), but the public also need confidence to believe in charities (and the good they do) to enable their role in society.
This is a challenge, because in some cases, the modern charity is quite different from the more traditional view of charity. To a certain extent, the public’s view of what is charitable is being tested. We can’t address this challenge without this sort of research.
Public trust and regulation
Luckily, the survey research indicates that there is a link between trust and regulation. A greater proportion of the public score trust highly if they know about OSCR - we found 75% scored trust six or more out of ten if they were aware of OSCR, compared to 61% if they were unaware. We also found higher trust scores for those that have the highest levels of interest in charities, which hopefully indicates this increased knowledge is a good thing (and not something that undermines trust).
We also know that charity regulation is something that the public feel is important - 84% of the Scottish public say so, and the Northern Irish results declare this even more strongly, with 94% agreeing that it is important that charities are properly regulated.
This sort of research also provides valuable insight into the factors that would increase trust. Our survey results showed that knowing how much of the donation goes to the cause, and seeing evidence of what has been achieved were really key to increasing trust. And despite different questions, similar themes were found in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, with donations being used properly and having a positive impact being important drivers.
We’ve used the research to help prioritise our activities so we can take action to target specific areas that might undermine public trust and confidence. We call this new risk-based way of working targeted regulation. It is a move away from looking at all charities in the same way and a move towards a more proactive and intelligence-led way of working where we look at particular issues.
At the heart of this is a commitment to the themes that are the drivers of trust – accountability and transparency. Working with a risk framework targets our efforts in two main areas (1) the protection of charitable assets and beneficiaries, and (2) the protection/integrity of charitable status. For example, our work with charities that fail to meet their reporting requirements helps to ensure that donations are publicly and transparently accounted for.
So where does this leave us, and other regulators keen to safeguard public trust and confidence in charities? Well, firstly, we need to continue to use this information to learn about public concerns and the issues affecting the sector so we can respond in the right way. Secondly, we need to build on the progress made so far. Between the different charity regulators there are some areas of really strong consensus about the drivers of trust, and we can continue to work together to strengthen our knowledge and use this knowledge to develop our approach. Finally, we need to be realistic about what will, and will not be possible. Regulation alone cannot guarantee public trust and confidence. Trust is influenced by a wide range of external factors, many of which we have no control over. But we can work with the sector to advocate the right sort of accountability and transparency; we can promote good governance, and we can develop great guidance that helps embed skills and support the sector to do what it needs to do.
Links to surveys
News item - Surveys show strong support for charities in Scotland
Stakeholder Surveys 2016 – Charities
Stakeholder Surveys 2016 – Public
Stakeholder Surveys 2016 infographic
News item - Northern Ireland’s charities amongst the most trusted in the UK, according to new research
News item - Public trust in charities has fallen, reports Charity Commission