Policy, Government and the Voluntary Sector

It’s time to rethink generalised surveys of ‘public trust in charity’

Jay Kennedy, DSC's Director of Policy and Research, shares his thoughts on the Charity Commission's latest research on public trust and confidence.

The latest research on public trust and confidence in charity was published in July. Since the first round was carried out in 2005, the ‘public’ (i.e. those polled by successive research companies working for the Commission) have been asked to rate their trust and confidence in charity on a score between 1-10. 

When the survey first started, the score was 6.3. This year it was 6.3.  

Despite a few peaks and troughs, the range has been quite constant. But then, so are the scores for other ‘sectors’ in similar surveys: doctors are routinely cited as the most trusted, politicians and journalists the least. Charities come out near the top, usually around or above ‘the average man or woman in the street’; Joe and Jane Doe tend to bumble along between 5 and 6 out of 10.  

The original idea (I think) was to provide a kind of baseline to track any changes over time, to underpin the Commission’s objective of ‘increasing public trust and confidence in charities’. This is one of five objectives set out in law which it is charged with promoting, which were originally set out in the Charities Act 2006 and subsequently in the Charities Act 2011, which consolidated other charity law including the 2006 Act. In summary, they arepublic confidence, public benefit, compliance, resources and accountability. Interestingly, the other four objectives never seem to get the same level of attention as the first. 

Correlation is not causation 

When trust scores have dipped or conversely improved, it’s tempting to attribute these changes to particular actions by charities or the Charity Commission, but we must always remember the old chestnut that ‘correlation is not causation’. The overall score did dip for charities around the time of the fundraising and safeguarding scandals from a few years ago. It’s possible that this was related to greater awareness of negative stories in the media, but this data doesn’t prove that causation. And it definitely doesn’t demonstrate causality between any regulatory actions taken by the Commission and more elevated trust scores for charities more recently. 

Over the years this research has suffered from many other problems too: at times questions have been posed in a leading manner or have been framed in artificially binary ways that negate the usefulness of the responses. The biggest problem, however, is one of basic design: if you’re relying on these surveys to develop any kind of robust conclusions or policy proposals on how to better regulate charities so that people trust them more, they just ‘don’t do what it says on the tin’. 

The fundamental problem: a lack of awareness 

A fundamental problem has always been that ‘the public’ has very low awareness of the range and diversity of charities and what they do, combined with arguably even less awareness of what the Charity Commission is and does. In fact, this year’s survey found that less than half of respondents had even heard of the Charity Commission, with the figure declining from 54% to 48% over the past two surveys! The research company concluded that ‘the public continue to have little real knowledge or understanding of the Charity Commission.’  

So, what are we even doing here? How can the regulator improve public trust if most of the public don’t even know that the charity regulator exists? How can we pretend that any of the subsequent questions about how the Commission should regulate (for example by prioritising ‘dealing with wrongdoing’ versus ‘helping charities do the right thing’) have any validity given this over-arching lack of awareness?  

Does this lack of awareness mean that the Charity Commission isn’t being an effective regulator? No. Are changes in the trust score based on more/less enforcement of ‘wrongdoers’ or better/worse guidance for trustees? No. This data tells us nothing about either. All it tells us is that fewer than half of people polled are aware of the Commission. It’s basically useless information, unless you’re a PR person charged with improving the Commission’s public profile, in which case you need to get your skates on. 

It’s past time for a rethink 

The law doesn’t mandate that the Commission carry out these surveys, it just says that increasing public trust and confidence in charities is one of its five objectives. Carrying them out has turned into a kind of ‘path dependence’ – they are done because they have always been done, without much apparent consideration of why they should continue. 

I think the Commission should reconsider how it invests the money it spends on these generalised surveys. Instead of asking questions about what the average person thinks, why not divert these resources towards researching practical initiatives that might actually deliver the objective and then testing those? For example, options to boost the visibility and usability of the register of charities, raise awareness of the Charity Code of Good Governance, or reform charity accounting so it’s easier for the layperson to find key insights about charities? 

We know the Commission is constantly under financial pressure, but so are charities – especially now. It’s even more incumbent on policy-makers to demonstrate that any regulatory reforms are based on solid evidence and avoid adding ever greater burdens on overloaded trustees and organisations already struggling in a cost-of-living crisis.