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Garry Jones's blog

Wed 12 Dec 2018

I spent some time out of the office last week, at our National Conference convened by NAVCA. Amongst the great line up of speakers was Baroness Tina Stowell, Chair of the Charity Commission. I have to acknowledge there were warm words about small charities and our support roles as CVSs. Unfortunately she went and spoilt it by droning on, yet again, about how Trust is a major issue in the world of charities and how we all need to step up (her full speech is referenced in Third Sector here). She also made reference to the recent Civil Society Futures report, convened by the otherwise estimable Julia Unwin, which regrettable echoes some of this narrative, by also asking us to take a long hard look at ourselves.

So, when it came to questions I stuck my hand straight up and made a statement – that all this negative, generalisation about ‘charities’ has me feeling like I did back at school, when I was held back in a class detention, due to the bad behaviour of one or two of my class mates. The undeniable wrongs of a handful of predominantly large corporate charities, over executive pay, bad fundraising practice and safeguarding abuse, to name a few, are of course, deplorable. But these large corporations, detached as they evidently are, from their beneficiaries, donors and communities; bear no resemblance to the hundreds of local charities I meet and get to know every year. This rang true with my CVS colleagues from around the country, who together support and promote the work of tens of thousands of grassroots charities. Charities embedded locally, governed by local people, where staff and volunteers live in the communities they serve, where every member of staff or volunteer can walk right up to the ‘boss’ and tell them what they really think (as our cleaner does frequently to me, and to good value). They don’t get paid excessively (most don’t get paid nearly enough for their time and commitment), they aren’t perfect but abusing their beneficiaries is abhorrent to them and they mostly have robust systems in place to actively prevent it. GDPR had most of our members worrying unnecessarily about compliance, simply because they wanted to do the right thing.

So, when a former NAVCA colleague, Joe Irvin, pointed me towards the Charity Commission’s own report on Trust, I took a deeper look and what it unveils is even more shocking, given the narrative of the Chair. It shows that Trust in Charities remains high. Higher than private companies, social services, local councils, MPs and newspapers. It shows a decline since 2005, but then all ‘institutions’ have seen a decline. Probably for quite complex socio-economic reasons, including the financial crisis and social media. It also highlights that the number one reason for a decrease in Trust is not an actual known incident that genuinely reduces trust, but media coverage of such incidents. What the media says, and doesn’t say about charities, matters.

The most bizarre aspect of this report is the holy grail of charities not being as trusted as ‘the average man or woman in the street’. What on earth does this mean? I have never met the average man or woman in the street, so I really couldn’t say if I trust them or not. I know I trust my immediate neighbour, as they are kind and helpful; but not the one over in the next street who is inconsiderate and rude. And this exposes the nonsense of the report really. When asked – do you trust charities, surely the most common response is – which ones? Because nobody has a relationship with ‘charities’; but many have relationships with specific charities. Personally I trust Oxfam a lot less than I used to, but there are now many local charities I trust far more, simply because I now know them better.

As such, the Charity Commission’s new strategic role of building trust in charities is vacuous and meaningless, unless they address it to specific charities. And I bullishly say, their direction should not be aimed at us. If this is your mission, then regulate against excessive pay and regulate the international aid sector, and regulate donor marketing – but do it in a thoughtful and focussed way. These repeated, negative, non-specific, ill-judged, general comments about ‘charities’ are at best unhelpful (what exactly am I expected to do with them? Churn out some trust powder, and sprinkle it on our members?) but at worst they reinforce the negative media coverage that then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Enjoy Christmas in the sure knowledge that most people do trust you and your organisation, most people are good and believe most other people are too.