Charities have spent the last year banished and cowering. Attacks have accumulated and negative headlines have abounded. The upshot of what my colleague described as the sector’s annus horribilis is a loss of public trust, which was the focus of our event on Friday: Can charities win back public trust?

Anyone hoping for reassurance from our speakers last week would have been disappointed. Ipsos MORI’s Bobby Duffy pointed to a decline in public trust in recent years, with new research showing that chief execs of UK charities get the fourth lowest trust score out of 22 countries. But as Duffy reminded us, charities are not alone in facing greater scrutiny and scepticism from the public: ongoing austerity and greater expectations of transparency mean that everyone is more focused than ever on value for money.

It fell to our second speaker, Becky Slack, to ask why the sector had failed to prepare itself for the questions about fundraising and executive pay packages that have been on the lips of journalists for many years. And it’s not over yet. Slack believes that more scandals are heading our way, warning charities to get ready for the anniversary of the tragic death of Olive Cooke in July, and for charity- and donor-related stories linked to the Panama Papers to emerge.

Ian Dunt, editor of politics.co.uk and the third of our panelists, argued that a charity scandal ‘on the scale of phone hacking for journalists or expenses for MPs’ is looming. One of the skills of a political journalist is having your ear to the ground’, said Dunt, and we have reached a point where ‘trust is so stale that one story told correctly could destroy a sector’.

So what does all of this mean for charities? It is too soon to tell whether the decline in public trust is ‘a blip or a shift’ and whether this can be halted or even reversed. But clearly something must be done, and quickly.

While it might be tempting to blame journalists and the media, this is misguided and unhelpful. As Duffy pointed out, the public’s attitude to charities is shaped by the general tone of the media coverage rather than specific details or articles. As long as there is an ‘underlying dissonance’—a mismatch between public expectations of charities and the reality of how they operate—negative coverage will continue to ring true.

As NPC argued in our research on public trust and charities over the last few years, rebuilding the sector’s reputation requires an individual response as well as a collective one. Founder of nfpSynergy, Joe Saxton, has put forward a Blueprint for restoring the sector’s reputation. He calls for a ten-year plan rather than a series of ‘sticking-plaster solutions’. Clearly, any plan needs to involve charities communicating differently with the public and the media, as well as behaving differently,  in terms of fundraising and governance for example.

But first we need to be let out of the metaphorical dog house. And for this to happen, the sector needs to recognise the mistakes it has made and apologise.

Can charities win back public trust? was hosted by Deloitte’s Charities and Not for Profit Group. Read our Storify summary of the event for more insights.

Please join our follow-up debate on 15 June, when we’ll be exploring whether the behaviour of large charities has tarnished the reputation of smaller organisations.

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