by Lucy Silver
Clear communication. Kindness. Reliability. Even just wearing navy blue. There are notable traits we find universally reassuring, whilst other behaviours raise red flags with our intuition and make us want to run a mile.
This can be as true of organisations as it is with people. Recent scandals in the third sector have damaged the perception of charities, where we’ve seen average public trust levels fall since 2014.¹ Thankfully, whilst it still holds its own in comparison to commercial organisations, banks and politicians, the charity sector remains less trusted than a stranger on the street.²
With ever-increasing competition in the third sector, it’s more important than ever to gain and maintain donor confidence for obvious reasons – healthy charities have healthy supporter bases.
So how can charities start regaining trust? Tell your supporters how you’ve failed.
In a highly image conscious world, there’s more pressure than ever for both people and organisations to tell perfect success stories. Whilst this might project a superficially ‘strong’ brand, these kinds of narratives lack depth and authenticity – and often feel suspicious. In contrast, there’s powerful currency in the honesty of opening up about our mistakes or projects that haven’t had the results we’d hoped for. When our failures are the things we are least likely to share, being open about them evokes trust and strengthens relationships.
This honest approach has been pioneered by health charities such as CLIC Sargent, who have implemented transparency in impact reporting, where they now outline ‘the good, the bad, and the ugly’ aspects of their work. Rather than causing reputational damage, by owning and being accountable for any mistakes, charities can strengthen donor relationships by demonstrating due respect for their supporters.
Trust built though transparency also supports much needed innovation in the third sector. In a society where reputation is everything, it’s not hard to see why organisations that pride themselves on being forces for good are increasingly risk adverse in order to avoid failure and criticism. However, charities - like any other competitive industry - need space to innovate and to make mistakes.
Partnerships between charity and commercial organisations – particularly those between health organisations and health charities – are a good way of producing more daring work. Whilst such partnerships have clear benefits for health organisations by increasing their reputation for social responsibility, they do not come without reputational risk for the charities themselves. Once again, transparency here is key. For these collaborations to be well received by a charity’s supporter base, clear reporting on the partnership’s strategy, motivations, and how it helps beneficiaries are essential. Vanity corporate collaborations do little for anyone – no one likes the smell of a CSR rat!
For the last few years the integrity of the third sector has been scrutinised more than ever before, but this mustn’t cow it. For whilst supporters are donating less to charity, the need for charities is increasing. Charities are having to do more, with less, and most will have to adapt in order to survive. Being willing to change and be open about these changes, warts and all, will be integral to success.
1. ‘Trust in Charities 2018 report’ by the Charity Commission for England and Wales, p5
2. ‘Trust in Charities 2018 report’ by the Charity Commission for England and Wales, p3
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