Trust in charities collapses; but ethics are key to rebuilding faith

Posted on 20/01/2015


The must-read annual Edelman Trust Barometer (see below for the full report) has just been published and its message is clear: If you want to build trust be social and be ethical.

The Barometer finds that, globally, trust in charities, NGOs, business and media has declined across the board and the UK is ranked as a net ‘distruster’ nation. Just 39% of the British population trust public, private and charitable bodies.

While the post-hacking scandal reaction continues to drive trust in media down further (from 41% in 2014 to 38%), there has been a miniscule increase in trust in government – up one percentage point to 43%.

And this year, trust in business has fallen again, taking the UK close to becoming a net distruster (52%) of businesses, but it’s big business which is powering this distrust and trust in small business is still high (72% in developed countries).

It is trust in charities and NGOs that has seen a catastrophic collapse in the UK; down from 67% of the population trusting charities in 2014 to 51% this year. This means there are now only four countries surveyed by the Barometer where the public trust NGOs less than the Brits (Japan, Sweden, Russia and Ireland).

What has powered such a collapse in support for charities?

The Barometer doesn’t explain the reasons for the collapse in trust in charities. But there are three main reasons Claremont‘s social media monitoring has been picking up:

  • Over-share. The impact of No Make Up Selfie and Ice Bucket Challenge has had a partially detrimental impact. Not because those campaigns were not worthwhile or successful, but because of the poor imitators (anyone remember the highly irritating UNICEF #WakeUpCall?) and because of over-sharing. The public is tired of being almost bullied into changing their profile photo, seeing friends of friends they met at a wedding ten years ago making fools of themselves in return for cash, or being asked to do increasingly odd challenges (Red Sock Friday anyone?)
  • Over-advertising. Charities have become, along with pay day lenders, PPI outfits and ambulance chasers, the stalwart advertisers of multi-channel TV. As more people move away from the big five TV outlets, more eyeballs are seeing the ads, with the result that people are becoming desensitised to hard hitting adverts and worn out by constant demands on their tight purse strings. And that’s before you add in the mass transport panels, out of home ads and email requests for money.
  • Reputation damage. Donations from No Make Up Selfie not making it to Cancer Research UK and the spat between Macmillan and motor neurone disease charities over Ice Bucket donations are obvious reputation issues. But there are other problems. Social media has meant that charities have seen an increase in whistle blowing by disgruntled staff and supporters. Tactical errors (such as Greenpeace’s Peruvian disaster and the widespread resurgence of often insulting chuggers) have also not helped. And just to top it off, government attacks on the charitable sector and restrictions on NGOs’ freedom of speech (such as the Lobbying Act) have compounded the problems charities face.

So how do charities, businesses and governments re-build trust?

The findings of the Barometer also point to how organisations can start to re-build trust. What’s encouraging for charities is that a firm commitment to ethics and integrity are top of 16 specific attributes the public say will build trust in organisations.

This should be an area where well run charities are unimpeachable.

But, more importantly, better engagement is also vital. Rather than asking “what is our no make up selfie”, charities should focus on providing better customer service, more transparency and empowering supporters to come up with their own ideas.

Charities also need to think of donation as being the final stage in a funnel of support. Like Amnesty does brilliantly, charities should bring more supporters into campaigns on issues that people care about, make it simple and easy to take action and then take sympathisers on a journey to donation. A brave charity would go as far as banning the chuggers and, apart from exceptional disaster circumstances, any advert which asks for money immediately.

In communications terms, this also means putting real life stories and supporters at the heart of campaigns. While the Trust Barometer shows academic experts and NGO spokespeople are still relatively trusted and should still be used, the most consistently trusted spokespeople are “people like yourself.” And, by a mile, the most trusted content creators are friends and family – with, presumably, this trust increasing exponentially the closer a friend or family member is.

This recipe for increasing trust is just one of the many responses the Trust Barometer provokes and all communicators should pay attention to its findings.

In fact, if you work in communications and you only read one report this year, make sure it’s this one: