Reading the Charity Commission’s latest survey with Ipsos MORI on public trust in charities brought to mind those impossible tests set for protagonists in fairy tales. You know the one where, in order for the hero/heroine to be united with their beloved, they need to produce a dragon’s eyeball without drawing blood or walk through the magical forest without their velvet slippers touching the ground? Well, it looks like charities might need to find similar levels of guile and derring-do (if not magical powers) to navigate through seemingly irresolvable and contradictory views about their work.

How do charities reconcile the fact that media stories about them are cited both as the reason for an increase (for 16% of the public) and a decrease (21%) in public trust and confidence? And, confusingly, it turns out that the vast majority of the public trust charities more if they have heard of them (a whopping 44% strongly agreed and 41% tended to agree with this statement) or if they have a good reputation (23%)—both of which rely to some extent on having a decent media profile. Even here, another contradiction waits in the wings: big charities might be better known, but in general they are seen as less trustworthy than their smaller counterparts (51% vs 28%).

This swallows up some big names in the sector. A charity as well-known as Oxfam springs to mind when people are asked to name charities that they would trust more than others, but also when asked which charities they would trust less.  There is good news for health charities, though, and those tackling cancer in particular, which seem to enjoy a head start on other causes when it comes to trust.

One of the stickiest conundrums facing charities is in the area of delivering public services. This recent research shows that 70% of the public are indifferent about who actually delivers their services. However, many do think that charities are best at providing a caring approach: 44%, vs 4% and 21% for the public or private sector respectively.

Meanwhile, levels of confidence in a charity providing a public service have declined from 25% in 2012 to 20% in 2014. This could be related to the overall decline in public confidence in public service delivery (as outlined in the National Audit Officer reports last year), but could also be because many think charities are not there to take on big public contracts.

Data from NPC’s Mind the gap survey with Ipsos MORI underlines this point; a quarter of respondents (23%) said ‘delivering public services that should be delivered by the state’ is one of the main things charities are getting wrong. And relative levels of comfort with charities in this role tend to be tinged with political hues.

  • Conservative voters are less like to be concerned about charities delivering public services than others (only 11% named it as a concern compared to at least one in four supporters of all parties, including UKIP)
  • Labour supporters (34%), and particularly those working in the public sector (35%), were most likely to mention this as a concern
  • People aged 35-54 (31%) and those in wealthier social groups (29 % of ABC1 vs. 16% of C2DEs) are also less keen on charities getting involved in public service delivery.

Yet for charities, involvement in delivering public services can be the best way to reach certain user groups, and a crucial source of income. Yet scrambling to bid for and to deliver large contracts can mean huge changes for charities: new staffing, new systems and processes and a distraction from their ultimate mission.

How much do charities discuss this dilemma with their supporters or share their anxiety about the impact of engaging with public service delivery?

Whether or not charities choose to weigh up the dilemmas they face in public or behind closed boardroom doors, it seems clear that they will not go away with the waft of a wand or a crafty spell. And whether or not you agree that the public is overly sensitive—or downright wrong—about charities, these are contradictions that the sector will need to acknowledge and wrestle with.

We have valuable insights into how the public thinks, and ignoring them is not a good option.

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