In a speech last week, Charity Commission chief executive Paula Sussex set out what she sees as the reasons for problems with trust and confidence in charities.
She said: “People told our researchers they were concerned by pressurising fundraising practices, a lack of clarity about where their money goes, a perception that too much money is spent on salaries or advertising.”
I don’t think many people would disagree with her. And for all these, comms has a critical role to play.
Let’s take the issues she raises one by one:
Pressurising fundraising practices: Addressing this is, I think, more about organisational culture than communications (and I’ve blogged about this previously). But comms people have a good understanding of their audiences and so should know what’s acceptable and what’s not. If we’re aware of fundraising practices that have the potential to damage our organisation’s reputation, we should speak up.
Clarity on spending: While we’re generally great at explaining why a cause is important, we’re often not as good at explaining the detail of how we’re spending people’s money and what impact it’s having. Or sometimes we explain it in a way that doesn’t reflect the complexity of the issue or the challenges around demonstrating impact.
I think we could to do more to take our supporters into our confidence and to explain the complexity, acknowledge our lack of certainty, and be open about the things that don’t work as well as we’d hoped.
Admitting you don’t have all the answers and trusting people to carry on supporting you anyway is not easy. It can feel scary. But it’s the best way to build real engagement.
Salaries: On the whole, I don’t think people in our sector are paid too much. I’ve yet to hear a reasonable argument for putting multi-million pound budgets under the control of altruistic amateurs. But there’s definitely a perception that charity salaries are too high.
I think part of the reason is that many people do not realise how charities have evolved over the last couple of decades. That’s something we as communicators need to address. This means using your communications to explain not just your cause but also your organisation, including why your charity is set up as it is. It’s about showing how every decision on overheads or organisational structure is ultimately about delivering charitable objectives.
Advertising: Given criticism of charity advertising, we need to proactively explain why we spend money on it. This might be because it’s an effective way or raising money, it changes public attitudes, or it encourages individual people to change their behaviour. And we, as a sector, should make sure we’re celebrating examples of brilliant adverts that have a real impact (like St John Ambulance’s recent, and life-saving, The Chokeables).
So it’s clear for each of the challenges with trust identified by the Charity Commission’s chief executive, communicators have a central role in addressing them.
This is really important, because the size of the prize in meeting these challenges is massive.
We know that, every single day, our sector does brilliant, amazing work that changes lives for the better.
But we’re only going to be able to continue doing this at the same level if we maintain the public’s trust. And the only way we’re going to do that is if we get our comms right.
We’ve got a sector full of bright, innovative, inspiring communicators, and we’ve got a huge, important task ahead of us. So let’s get to it.