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Rebuilding the relationship with the public: Are charities making the grade?

Michael Grade, Chair of the new Fundraising Regulator, found himself in a spot of bother today when doing the rounds promoting the new Fundraising Regulator. For sure, there may well be justified concerns that he got some of the detail wrong in some interviews. As others have pointed out, if the public don’t understand how the new system will work and expectations are raised, that is not going to help build trust.

But the phrase ‘laggards’ to describe those, well, lagging behind in changing fundraising practice has also upset people. From the point of view of the regulator, the fact that a number of charities haven’t coughed up for the costs can’t be a good sign.

This all sits in the wider debates about charities’ relationship with the public, and in particular public trust in charities. Though there are some mixed messages on whether trust is rebounding, there’s no doubt that the sector took a hit in recent years.

But if only there were some sort of survey that found out what charity leaders thought… well, actually that’s exactly what we at NPC did as part of our State of the Sector work, asking 300 charity chief executives and trustees what they thought about public trust and how it could be rebuilt.

So the good news —80% of charities were exploring new models of fundraising. But in truth this picture of some lagging behind was also pretty clear. Around a third of charity leaders thought that a loss of trust in the sector overall would have no effect on their organisation, which provoked the Charity Commission Director of Policy and Communications to exclaim ‘come on!’ at the launch of Charities taking charge.

It was also notable that of all the options we surveyed on what would be most effective in rebuilding the relationship with the public, ‘charities changing existing practices’ ranked near the bottom, with only 28% saying this would be very effective. And we found one organisation giving an example of positive risk they had taken as just carrying on fundraising practices that had proven controversial regardless.

So whilst the word ‘laggards’ may be unhelpful, it does seem that there’s still a chunk of the sector who aren’t really facing up to the challenge, even if there are many organisations who are changing. The problem is the sector will only be as strong as it’s weakest link in all this.

Where do we go from here? We’ve long argued that regulation isn’t going to solve the issues in the relationship between the public and charities that have been raised by fundraising scandals alone. Indeed our idea of a ‘Gran test’ illustrates this point—it’s a culture change that is needed.

But alongside this, it’s vital to understand that the relationship with the public matters for a wider range of reasons. We frequently found in the State of the Sector research that people were taking a very narrow view about their relationship with the public, focusing solely on fundraising. But as homelessness charity Mayday Trust expertly explored in a report on their systems change journey, that relationship of trust really matters when trying to work directly with new people.

For NPC’s part, in mid-July we’ll be publishing a collection of essays from sector leaders, including several on the relationship with the public and how charities can repair it. We hope that this will give people some new perspectives and food for thought on how charities can respond to this challenge. As a result, charities can build a stronger relationship with the public—in all their multiple and complex potential roles as donors, service users, campaigners and activists.

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