Who cares if charities sink?

By Vicki Prout 12 February 2013

Do you remember that period last year, when you couldn’t move for news about NHS reforms? That’s how it felt to me anyway, with then Health Secretary Andrew Lansley popping up all over the place defending the sweeping changes he was ushering in. And yet this morning I found out that only 29% of the British public are aware these NHS reforms are happening.

The fact that over two thirds of the population have missed this news reminded me that we all exist in our own bubbles, and that what one person might consider the be all and end all is utterly inconsequential to another. The state of the charity sector, for example,  would be considered by many—probably most—to be a niche issue. Yes, people care about charities, but they probably don’t pay close and continuous attention to the sector’s affairs.

This morning, NPC held an event attended by some of those who are as nerdy about the charity sector as we are, and asked whether the charity sector is weathering the storm. Ipsos Mori chief executive Ben Page threw a torrent of facts and figures at us—in a nutshell, public trust in charities is high (only 1 in 10 don’t trust them at all), money is tight (1 in 5 reporting a decrease in their donations) and good communication with supporters is vital. It was also interesting to hear that since 2010 the number of people who say they have used a charity’s services has gone up. As Ben put it, charities benefit from ‘high levels of trust in a cynical word—levels any government could only dream of.’

But as we know, from multiple sources, donations are falling. On the high street big name shops are dropping like flies. One of the attendees at this morning’s event asked whether people thought this could happen to charities. Whilst I think we are unlikely to see any of the big name charities go under we could see them experience heavy losses. For example, Shelter has recently announced that it’s looking at closing 10 advice centres and getting rid of 100 staff, due to legal aid cuts. Meanwhile many smaller, less well-known charities may well go to the wall with the majority of the public oblivious. An anonymous donor recently saved Wiltshire Mind from closure following a social media campaign to save the local mental health charity but most small organisations are not so lucky. And whilst people connected with these charities will be outraged at their demise most people…won’t notice. Or won’t care.

Yes, the number of people saying charities are ‘very important’ has gone up. But pubic attitudes are hardening, and the public is grumpy. Charities need to work hard to connect with people. At today’s event we also heard from Diana Tickell, Executive Director at Barnardo’s, about the work they are doing to keep their supporters happy and engaged. Technology (amongst other things) has made it easier to do this. Next month NPC is launching a new piece of research on donor motivation which we hope will further help charities be smart about encouraging loyalty.

But there is no denying that we are in unchartered territory these days. And whilst the survival of the sector may be at the top of our agenda, it’s important to be aware that it probably isn’t on most people’s radar.

Watch a summary video of what was said: