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Developing a positive response to the public’s view of charities

21 June 2016

Over the past year, I’ve worked with a number of people from different charities and organisations to develop a positive narrative for the charity sector in response to concerns about a decrease in public trust and understanding of how modern charities work.

In April, we took our narrative to a series of focus groups of charity supporters and non-supporters, to hear what they were thinking and feeling about charities and how they responded to our sector narrative. We also wanted to gauge how and to what extent negative media coverage of charities has cut through to the public.

The research revealed some key insights.

1. The trust issue is real and must be addressed

People have serious concerns about how charities operate. Charities are felt to have become too corporate – advertising spend and CEO pay were used as examples of this – and are not transparent about how donations are spent. Almost everyone could cite an experience of aggressive fundraising techniques, and there was particular concern about the effect of these on elderly or vulnerable friends and family. There was a sense of nostalgia for ‘the good old days’, when charity was felt to be simpler, more local and more fun. Crucially, too, charity supporters are more frustrated than non-supporters, and more likely to be critical.

2. Media coverage is confirming concerns, not creating them

Negative stories are confirming, rather than shaping, people’s views of charities: the media is seen to be exposing bad practice, with charities ultimately to blame. People’s underlying suspicions about charities are brought to the fore as the stories are frequently resonating with their own negative experiences.

3. You can’t fix the reality by talking about the ideal

The negative stories about charities are being received in a vacuum, with nothing about the positive impact of the sector to balance it out. However, unless people’s concerns are addressed, they won’t engage with a positive narrative about the sector. The sector needs to change its behaviour, and people need to experience this change.

4. Communicating collective impact is essential to restoring trust  

The desire to understand the way charities spend the money people donate (the “number of pennies in the pound that goes towards the cause” issue) is actually an expression of a deep underlying concern; people don’t really know if their donations are doing any good. While supporters talked passionately about individual charities they had personal connections with – usually through experience of the cause for themselves or a close friend or relative – there was a lack of understanding of the wider part charities as a whole play within our society. Charities need to come together and find a way to quantify and communicate their collective impact.

Next steps for the narrative

We’ve used these insights to revise and refine our narrative, which aims to tell the story about people making the difference, and how charities harness people’s individual goodwill and combine it with professional expertise and vision to create the biggest possible impact.
It focuses on the impact and benefit of charity to society, and less on the organisations; how we are all touched by charity, and benefit from it. And it encourages the feeling that giving time, voice and money for social good and change, is a good, rewarding feeling.

The next step in the narrative work is to create a communications toolkit for charities to give sector spokespeople the confidence to speak to the media on behalf of the sector. It will also include a comprehensive Q&A to help charities answer key questions on fundraising, governance and salaries.

This further work is being spearheaded by NCVO, with the support and input of CharityComms, ACEVO, the Institute of Fundraising, and a whole range of charities and other interested parties. 

NCVO is also developing a public facing website to explain how charities work, and together we’re working on a range of different initiatives to encourage more positive stories about charities in the media.

By better understanding what the public thinks about modern charities, and by working collaboratively across the sector, we hope to be able to help people feel confident in the way charities work and inspired by what we achieve.

Vicky Browning


Vicky became CEO of ACEVO, the charity and social leaders’ network, in January 2017, helping to empower our inspiring sector leaders to make the biggest difference they can to their beneficiaries, their organisation and to society. Vicky was previously CharityComms’ director for nearly seven years.