Ian MacQuillin: Have people really lost trust in charities?


Trust in charities is a perennial headline-grabbing topic. And so it was last month with the Charities Aid Foundation report on UK giving, which showed that giving and trust have both fallen (a correlation) and the media reports have linked the two causally (the fall in trust has caused the fall in giving).

A number of things trouble me about this and how trust in charities is understood more generally.

The first is how the media has latched on to a fallacious causal link that if trust has declined then that must be the cause of the fall in giving. But as Daniel Fluskey at the Institute of Fundraising and others have pointed out, the CAF report also says that fewer people are being asked to give.

Given that research also shows most people give in response to solicitations, it is no wonder that fewer people give if fewer people are being asked to give.

The second issue is that asking a single question about whether people find most charities “trustworthy” is not a particularly reliable way to establish levels of trust.

You have to ask people what they trust charities to do? Do they trust charities to deliver services and look after beneficiaries? Do they trust charities to spend donations wisely? And even then, asking “do you trust” is a loaded question, so it would need to be phrased more subtly than that, like asking people to rate statements such as these on a Likert scale, used to assess people’s attitudes to a topic:

  • Most charities will tell their donors how they use their money.
  • Most charities make a big difference to the lives of their beneficiaries.

Notice how these statements don’t mention trust at all. This type of work allows the researcher to infer trust levels in charities without the leading question “do you trust charities?”

You could then ask exactly that question at some other point. If the answer to this direct question is not in the same ballpark as the inferred level of trust from asking the indirect questions, we know that people are either over-reporting or, more likely, under-reporting their levels of trust in charities.

The third point is that the numbers just don’t stack up anyway.

Adrian Sargeant and Roger Lawson did some research in 2015 and found that donors’ levels of trust in the charities they supported was in the high 80s and low 90s.

This suggests that if there are overall low levels of trust, people must really trust the charities they give to, but not the charities they don’t give to.

But someone else is giving to the charities they don’t give to, and those donors have really high levels of trust in them. But they don’t trust other people’s charities.

So the question is do they not donate to the charities they don’t trust because they don’t trust them? Or do they not trust the charities they don’t donate to because they don’t donate to them?

In the first case, lack of trust causes non-giving.

But in the second case, non-giving is a cause of the non-trust. Lack of trust is a post-hoc symptom (or perhaps rationalisation) for people not giving to a particular charity.

This provides an explanation of why the falling trust in charities could be related to changes in fundraising. Because fewer people are asked, fewer people give, so those people rationalise or interpret their “decision” not to give by reporting that they don’t trust charities.

Rather than lack of trust being a cause for declining numbers of donors, it’s the other way round: falling donor numbers are causing the reported fall in trust. More fundraising, and more visible fundraising, might improve trust in charities rather than diminish it.

I am not for one moment arguing that it is this simple cause and effect: there are many factors to consider. Neither am I suggesting that such an interpretation provides a rationale to flood the streets with “chuggers” under the misguided apprehension that this would ramp up trust (it would almost certainly have the opposite effect).

But I am saying that, as usual in this sector, uncovering the truth requires a bit more critical reflection than we often give it, and is very far removed from the headlines.

Ian MacQuillin is director of the think tank Rogare


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