The construction of trust: how people put their faith in charities

Adam Lalák and Tim Harrison-Byrne from nfpSynergy explore how people determine whether they “trust charities”, why some charities are trusted more than others, and what are the key drivers of trust in charities. ACEVO members can download the first report of a series on the theme.

(This blog was originally posted on the nfpSynergy website)

You want to make a donation to charity. Unlike when buying a piece of clothing, you don’t receive anything tangible for your money. You simply have to trust the charity to make a positive impact with your donation. No seeing if it fits, or if it is good quality, and certainly no refunds!

This is why trust is the foundation of our relationship with charities. If the public loses trust in charities, their very existence comes under threat. But where does this trust come from? How does it develop and change over time? At nfpSynergy, we are currently partnering with ACEVO to help their members and our clients to shed more light on these questions. This blog draws on some of the key themes from our first report.

Last year, more than half of the UK public said that they trusted charities. However, at the start of 2018, it dropped significantly as a result of media coverage of unethical behaviour. Many still remember the accusations raised against Oxfam’s workers in Haiti and the treatment of staff at the Presidents Club fundraising dinner. Since then, trust in charities has been slowly recovering.

How do people determine whether they “trust charities”? The rational thing to do would be to look inside your head, check how much you trust all the different individual charities you know and then calculate the average. However, this is clearly not what happens. When we asked people about their trust in individual charities one-by-one and averaged the results across more than 100 charities, we got a much a higher figure than when we asked people whether they “trust charities” in general.

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This is no surprise. To make broad judgements like this one, people need to rely on mental shortcuts. When you get asked whether you trust charities, you will probably think of the first few charities that spring to mind and tailor your response accordingly. These are likely to be the last few charities that you have seen covered in the media. When these stories are negative, the overall trust in charities figure goes down.

One reason why trust in charities is so susceptible to disruption by negative media coverage is that ethical behaviour is the main thing people expect from charities.

This is why we were not surprised to find that the belief that charities are ethical and honest is the biggest driver of trust in charities in our recent nine nation study. When people lose this belief, their trust in charities breaks. However, it’s certainly not the only factor that affects trust. As the diagram shows, the other most important attitudes that predict trust are believing that charities are well-run and that they can make a real difference. This points to an important lesson: relying on ethics is not enough. To earn trust, charities need to work on their perceived efficiency and impact too.

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What is it that makes your particular charity trusted or distrusted? We found an indication that older and more established charities find it slightly easier to win the public’s trust. There is a correlation, albeit mild, between the age of a charity and its trustworthiness. If you stick around for a while, people will become familiar with you and start trusting you more.

Furthermore, people tend to trust charities whose work they can understand and who do not attempt to question their worldview too much. Charities that help children or work on serious health conditions such as cancer are amongst the most trusted. On the other hand, charities that challenge the status quo and attempt to fundamentally change the way the world works – such as environmental or LGBTQ+ charities – find themselves at the opposite side of the spectrum.

In conclusion, trust in charities is a highly elusive matter: it takes a long time to build and a short time to break. Charities need to be wary that people often rely on quick mental shortcuts when they decide whether they trust an organisation. If you want to be trusted, you need to make it clear that you have the public good in mind and behave in ways that people can understand.

Photo by Micah Williams on Unsplash

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