The public view of charities: could do better

14 Mar 2019 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 14 Mar 2019

Photo by Kat Yukawa on Unsplash
Photo by Kat Yukawa on Unsplash

The links between trust in charities and the level of donations are not clear cut – but they are there. Fostering goodwill is vital for fundraising and generating other support.

Public opinion of charities within the UK is average within some major economies, despite a raft of recent high-profile scandals.

However, in the Republic of Ireland popular support for the third sector has plummeted this decade, following various crises in the sector.

This is worrying because this new report, Fundraising Around the World from nfpSynergy, found that the two biggest drivers of charitable donations are people’s belief organisations are ethical and honest, and that they are well run – both more important than whether charities make a real difference (in third) and play a vital role in society (fourth).

The charity consultancy spoke with around 6,600 people in nine countries – Australia, Canada, Germany, Netherlands, New Zealand, South Korea and the US, as well as the UK and Ireland – to produce the report published this month.

Just over half – 52% - of people in the UK trust charities, while 70% say they make a difference to society. About 58% of people think there are too many charities, and less than half (47%) believe they are generally well run, with the same number believing they are transparent about where the money goes.

In RoI, trust in charities has fallen from 78% to 48% since 2012 – which shows just how much opinions about the sector can change (albeit this plummet came from a high starting position).

Trust is important

The UK is somewhere in the middle of the countries surveyed, when it comes to trust in charities. However, the three lowest scoring nations were Korea (26%, which is an outlier level), Netherlands (36%) and Germany (46%).

The paper suggests there might be an interesting and inverse link between trust/reliance on the state and opinions of the charity sector:

“Two of the least trusting countries were both non-Anglophone Northern European countries, suggesting there is a question about the role that charities play in these countries, which retain a stronger role for the state in their social system.

“Whereas in countries like Ireland, UK, Australia and New Zealand where the last thirty years has seen a withdrawal of the state as the sole provider of social welfare, the function of charities in society is seen to be broader.”

There are also important lessons – or, perhaps, warnings – for those in the third sector that they are tied, in some way, to other charities even if they have no links of any substance.

The research highlights what has happened in Ireland as a warning case for the sector everywhere:

“There have […] been knock-on effects to charitable income [from the decline in trust], with many Irish charities completely unconnected to the controversies reporting substantial drops in income over this time period.

“One respondent in an nfpSynergy focus group said that he had only once taken action as a result of seeing something on the news – to cancel two direct debits to unrelated charities after seeing one of these controversies. While in 2012, 74% of respondents in our research reported having given to charity in Ireland in the last three months, this had declined to just 61% in our most recent survey.

“The lesson for individual charities is simple – trust in your organisations is not a given and is dependent not just on how the public sees your charity, but how it sees the sector more broadly. It is volatile and highly subject to change.

“You may well come under scrutiny through no direct fault of your own but through the actions of completely unrelated organisations. Having a strategy in place ahead of time for when negative media attention is drawn to the charity sector in your country could make the difference in the long run.”

Fundraising drivers

That said, there is granularity to public opinion. The area of work for a given charity has strong links with levels of trust.

Cancer charities are the most trusted organisations in both the UK (tied with rescue services on 76% trust) and Ireland (74%) whereas overseas aid and development groups are the least trusted (36% and 43% respectively).

The paper found that higher trust tends to lead to more donations – unsurprisingly – so, therefore, it looked at what creates trust.

Rather than use simple polling, nfpSynergy used relative importance analysis to weight different factors and then assign each a relative importance (as a percentage) to people generally.

The most important positive factor was that charities are ethical and honest (20.8%), followed by charities being well run (18.8%), they make a real difference (15.6%) and play a vital role in society (12.6%).

“This may well go some way to explaining why trust in charities in Ireland has fallen so dramatically compared with the UK. In Ireland the most high profile public scandals have been around un-ethical and dishonest behaviour whilst in the UK the criticisms have been more focussed on fundraising practice and charity governance.”

Different folks

The paper also tried to characterise people and not just their levels of trust in charities – but also the nature of this trust.

It identified seven different types of people, four which are “charity doubters” (sceptics, trapped and neutrals) and four “charity believers”:


1 - Sceptics- Have minimal belief in the value of charities and the importance of their role in society. Although they will still support charities they are unlikely to engage deeply or be committed donors.

2 - Trapped - This segment has other priorities in life and feel too under pressure financially to give. This segment is younger and is over-committed to family, career and lifestyle. They do see the value in charities and trust them, so they do want to give but feel they can’t at this time.

3 - Neutrals - Is probably the most interesting group within the Doubters. They have belief in charities and are likely to agree they play a positive role, but they do not seem to be convinced enough to engage. They are an audience that charities don’t seem to be reaching at present through existing channels and activities.


4 - Conflicted - This is the older trusting donor group; They want to give to all who ask and therefore have a tendency to feel overwhelmed as a group - being asked by multiple charities in certain markets as the ‘traditional supporters’.

5 - Compassionates - Driven by empathy and values to commit and engage with many causes, they are more likely to support causes across the board; particularly animals, children and poverty alleviation. In Australia the second most valuable segment by individual and overall value of giving

 6 - Occasional - These are the uncommitted charity supporters. They give generously but are not necessarily loyal or engaged.

7 - Visibles - Overall a very positive group. High levels of Trust and lower levels of resistance to fundraising. They feel good through giving and being ‘seen to give’. They are high profile supporters and contain event participants and others who share the knowledge of their generosity.

Among the ways organisations should use this data, the report stated:

“Analyse the attitudes of a population by the different segments and their attitudes. A country with high levels of neutrals and occasionals will need a different set of communications from charities to one with high levels of compassionates and visibles…

“Know how popular your cause is – if a cause isn’t naturally popular in a country then the messages about how well run, how ethical, how much difference the charity makes, and how vital its work is become even more important.”

Further observations

The paper identified some further interesting general trends:

“Women and higher social grades tend to be stronger supporters of charities across all of the countries we surveyed, while men are likely to be significantly more annoyed by fundraising tactics…

“Older people and higher value donors are in a place of dynamic tension, with high enthusiasm for donating and high levels of giving, but often also feeling hugely under pressure and overwhelmed by the requests they receive.

“Religion plays a key role, with regular worshippers more likely to support charities even in more secular European societies. Regular worshippers are also more likely to trust all institutions in society – not just charities.”

Joe Saxton, founder of nfpSynergy and former chair of the Institute for Fundraising, said: “Anybody who follows the charity sector in Ireland will know that there have been a number of well-publicised scandals involving charity funds being spent in ways that donors wouldn’t expect…

“It’s no coincidence that in our surveys, the Irish public had the lowest level of people agreeing that charities are ‘ethical and honest’ and ‘well run’ across all the countries we surveyed.

“One of the pieces of analysis we did was to look at levels of trust for donors and worshippers in all the countries we surveyed. The results were illuminating.

“Those who worshipped regularly trusted every single public institution more than those who didn’t, and those who made higher levels of donations trusted every single public institution more than those who gave lower levels of donations. Any charity who wants to know more about the likely habits of their donors needs to find out if they are regular worshippers and their general giving habits.

“Any campaign to change public attitudes should focus not on the unremittingly negative or positive, whose views are likely not to change, but the group whose minds are not made up. This means the key challenge overall is not influencing sceptics in a country, but the segments called neutrals and occasionals who are more ambivalent.”

This report leaves plenty to think about for everyone interested in the third sector.

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