Trust and charities – what we really need to understand

There’s a stream of data that clearly and unsurprisingly shows us that trust in charities has decreased and is at a low point (although the relatively recent NFP research suggests it has gone up a little recently). However paradoxically there is also data from some individual charities which shows that their supporters have very high trust in them.

We would all agree that trust is key but we need to explore this in more depth; we need to be clear about what trust is, what it means and how we can drive improvements.

We need to start with what we mean by trust.

Trust is a complex concept and could be interpreted in a number of ways. It could be about how much we trust a charity to achieve its mission. It could be about how much we trust a charities fundraising approaches or it could be how much we trust the charity CEO. Alternatively, it could be a combination of these or other points.

And we need to consider what decreasing trust actually means. If trust is decreasing it could mean three things:

–         Charities are now doing things that make them less trustworthy

–         Charities are doing the same things that they always have but the public have changed their view of charities trustworthiness (perhaps because they have more information or understanding of how charities operate)

–         A combination of both of these

As if that weren’t enough we don’t really understand the link between trust and supporting a charity; and this is a circular conversation as partly the answer to that depends on what we mean by trust.

The limited and anecdotal data that I have seen suggests that there are 3 broad groups:

1.    Those who are regular charity supporters who still have trust in many charities and particularly the charities they support. That’s not to say their trust hasn’t declined but it is still very high.

2.    Those who are potential or occasional charity supporters. This group has seen their trust and confidence in charities eroded and reduced.

3.    Those who are charity rejectors. Unsurprisingly this group has seen the biggest decrease in trust. They have a view that this proves what they have always suspected and that “there’s no smoke without fire”.

It is important to be clear that trust is a contextual emotion. Charles Green has a great line about trust, “I trust my dog with my life but not my ham sandwich”. His point being that trust isn’t absolute.

This emphasises the point that loyal charity supporters can simultaneously trust charities with their mission but not necessarily have trust in their fundraising approaches – which the limited evidence suggests is often the case!

Trust is a great broad indicator but we can’t use this alone as a proxy for public perceptions and the extent of our problems and issues. If we want to get under the skin of this in any meaningful manner then we need to understand the issues, get the insight, take actions and monitor.