Charities would usually be towards if not at the top of any list of the most trusted individuals, organisations and brands. After all, they provide crucial, often life-saving, support to people in the most desperate of circumstances. The importance of what they do means that some charities have, quite rightly, developed to the equivalent size, resources and influence of multi-national corporations.
But that status is now very much under threat.
The charitable sector is finding out what the banking sector learned over the last decade. There’s no such thing as being too big to fail. And ultimately, their continued reach and influence is conditional on retaining public and political support, which has been thoroughly undermined by the spate of allegations against some of the biggest and best known charities – ranging from behaviour of staff or representatives in crisis zones to the conduct of senior executives at home.
Time will tell if the damage is irrevocable, but the extent of the repercussions for charities should not be underestimated. The loss of public and political trust in many charities – which rely very much on goodwill to do their jobs – has significant implications for organisation’s fundraising and ability to deliver services. Members of the public are less likely to voluntarily donate to a charity associated with wrongdoing. And government ministers are less likely to throw their support (and reputations) and public money behind an organisation beleaguered with scandal.
It’s worth remembering this also fits into a broader and longer-term context. A number of prominent charities were skating on the proverbial thin ice a couple of years ago when aggressive fundraising undertaken in their name came to light. There have been questions as to just how much of the money you put in a fundraising tin or commit via direct debit goes to providing front-line aid, and how much funds charities’ back office operations. And then there are the persistent arguments over the extent to which the Government is willing to fund foreign aid – with critics insisting 0.7 percent of GDP is excessive and resources could be better spent at home.
The biggest and most painful of ironies to the current situation is of course that it is the people charities support that pay the biggest price for organisation’s failings. In cases such as Haiti or Syria, those who have been exploited could lose out yet again if charities see their funding cut, leaving them unable to continue providing aid and vital services.
The bottom line is that charities need to win back some the trust lost in recent weeks. The question is how they do that.
Time isn’t on their side, but charities need to determine whether further allegations are likely and make sure they’re prepared to address them comprehensively and apologetically – if necessary showing how they will make restitution, but most importantly showing how they’ve made changes to ensure such issues cannot happen again.
But irrespective of whether they’ve been the subject of accusations or not, all charities need to ensure they’re proactively and transparently talking about their governance. In practice, that means not just communicating what they’re doing and their successes and undoubted good work in crises, but how they’re doing it. Getting those messages across will help demonstrate to the public and ministers controlling the public purse strings that issues of inappropriate behaviour or exploitation cannot happen – or at least that charities have done all they can to minimise the possibility.
Without that action, charities will struggle to bridge what risks becoming a widening trust gap.