The public’s changing expectations of charities

By Katie Boswell 19 October 2016 3 minute read

Public reaction to the Libor fund scandal—and to other charity exposés that have hit the headlines recently—reflect the fact that expectations of charities are higher than ever. Like other institutions, charitable activities need to be able stand up to scrutiny. If they want to maintain public trust, charities can no longer afford to waste money on poor services or approaches.

Last month, NPC published What makes a good charity?, a guide to charity analysis which outlines our latest thinking on what it takes to be an effective charity in today’s world. Much has changed since we last addressed this issue in our 2010 publication, The little blue book. Here we outline four trends that are shaping public perceptions of what it is to be a good charity.

Greater scrutiny of charity practice

Our increasingly connected world and growing expectations of transparency mean that charities are more likely to be called out for acting in ways that contradict their mission. The pressure is on charity leaders to ensure that everything they do is aligned with their mission, from their culture to their fundraising. For example, charities might no longer be able to rely on the sad images of malnourished African children that they have traditionally used to raise money from Western audiences. Social media backlashes, and creative campaigns such as the spoof Radi-Aid appeal, have challenged these practices for undermining the dignity of people that charities work with.

Focus on impact

As the Libor fund scandal indicates, the public are unhappy to discover that charities are spending money on services that have no impact. NPC’s research has shown that charities are more trusted by the public when they are seen to be basing their decisions on good evidence—not just good intentions. At NPC, we think that the best charities are driven by the impact they want to achieve and the evidence base about what works. They want to make a lasting difference to the issue or the people with whom they work, and they use data to continually learn and improve.

Expectations of user involvement

More and more, we are noticing how charities are recognising the benefits of involving people who use their services in shaping it. Users may be represented on the board, actively engaged in designing services, or informally feeding in their views. Whatever form this involvement takes, it is expected to be genuine, meaningful, and ongoing. There is no point in wasting people’s time if their opinions don’t make a difference. When done well, involving people in this way can help the charity draw on the expertise of those with lived experience of the issue it is seeking to address.

Fast-changing environment

These are times of great flux for charities and their users: whether it is the impact of Brexit or declining state funding, demographic shifts or digital disruption. Being responsive to change is essential if charities are to thrive in this fast-changing environment—whether that means stopping some activities or forging new partnerships to deliver new activities or reach new groups. Funders can support charities by providing unrestricted funding, which can in turn enable charities to be more agile in volatile environments.

How charities and funders respond to these trends will have a knock-on effect on the difference they make, and on the perceptions of the public, for years to come. Getting some of this right might help avert further scandals in the future, or at least ensure they are a rarer occurrence than they seem to have become in recent times.

A version of this article originally appeared in Alliance Magazine on 8 October 2016.