Charities start 2016 facing some of their toughest tests in recent history.

Charities in Crisis, the Great British rake-off and Charities are the last bastion of corporate greed are just a few of the headlines in 2015.

A report from the Charities Aid Foundation in September indicated that only 57% of the public now trust charities. In November, another report from Charity Digital News claimed that this figure had fallen to 48% – the lowest for 9 years – and that the British public now trusts charities less than it does supermarkets.

What has caused this downturn in public attitudes towards the charity sector ?

The key issues appear to be:
• Too much money spent on executive salaries
• Not transparent about how money is spent
• Too much pressure on people to donate.

In recent years there has been an increasing pressure on charities to be more “business-like”. This is welcome advice – but it has been misinterpreted by some larger charities to mean “become more like the corporate sector”.

Donors want charities to be business-like, to account for and use their gifts wisely, and to keep their administrative and other peripheral costs to a minimum.

But they don’t want the introduction of corporate sector attitudes – 6-figure salaries, greed, lack of accountability, to name but a few. The view that “if you want good people, you have to pay high salaries” may well apply in the private and public sectors: but the majority of staff and volunteers in charities work in the Third Sector because of the many, non-financial, rewards this brings. They want fair, not private sector, remuneration.

A survey in the United States where 40,000 people were contacted by one charity showed that letters promising that no donors’ gifts would be used to fund salaries or administration raised 3 times as much money as identical letters which failed to include this promise.

People want to know that the money they give is spent on charitable activities, not on the other costs a charity incurs.

If this wasn’t enough, pressure exerted on would-be (or would-not-be) donors by larger charities has received a very bad press. Aside from the tragic case of Olive Cooke, pressure from street fundraisers or through unsolicited mailshots and telephone calls has created a public backlash.

The good news is that the public still trusts charities more than they do politicians and estate agents. But that should be no cause for complacency. Those charities which are not matching public expectations need to get their houses in order – soon.