Public misconceptions and charities

4 September 2009

Last year, some colleagues and I wrote a report on homelessness. One of its observations was that both the problem and the activities that charities undertake to tackle it are disconnected from public perceptions.

Where homelessness is commonly thought of as an issue of rough sleeping, in fact most homelessness is about people in unsuitable, overcrowded, insecure housing. Where the public thinks of charities’ role as providing shelter and soup runs, in fact organisations themselves see their role precisely as offering ‘more than a roof’. Indeed, in most cases, public donations are quite unlikely to be used for bricks and mortar, which is primarily paid for by government.

Public ignorance presents a dilemma for charities in many sectors, not just homelessness. What obligations do organisations have to explain the ‘real’ problem and how they are addressing it?

A pragmatic view is that winning donor support is hard enough, and that charities have to work within the parameters of what people believe—even if mistaken. Hence posters of rough sleepers with dogs. Or, thinking about development charities, children in sub-Saharan Africa (it’s much easier to show emergency relief than, say, efforts to improve governance).

Yet, long run, charities surely need to tackle misconceptions—not trade on them. The costs of not doing so include:

  • donors funding the wrong things—particularly where they might restrict donations;
  • having to establish mechanisms to accommodate donor biases—charities’ acquiescence in the phoney debate about admin costs is a good example;
  • jeopardising the bond of trust between donor and charity—what happens when the donor finally works out what’s really going on?