You probably know that I have four children – you might even have read some of my articles, when I wrote for Third Sector magazine, drawing on my experiences of being a mother – highlighting things as diverse as managing the risks of a twin pregnancy to benchmarking insurance products for my daughter’s first car!
In this article I want to explore the negative impact of the ‘lack of trust’ narrative on the sector. My theory is drawn from my experience of birth. Fear not – what follows is not a blow by blow account of childbirth – rather the risks, expectations and impact of the language we use and the narrative we assign to the social change sector.
When my daughter came along the predominant question being asked of me, and all mothers in the hospital labour ward, was ‘how is the pain?’ But it wasn’t just the question I was asked during the labour – it was the topic of virtually every conversation in my last trimester. How would I manage the pain? Had I considered the various ways I could safeguard against pain – medical or otherwise? My expectation, based on other women’s experiences and the medical professionals was therefore; boy was this going to hurt! Everywhere I turned, pain, pain, pain.
My theory? All this talk of pain conditions the mind to concentrate on it. By no means is it a conclusive study but my own experiences bear this out – the references to pain having a direct correlation with my suffering, or lack, of it.
But what has all this got to do with charities and trust?
Everywhere we turn in the sector the narrative is falling trust in us.
Just as no two pregnancies are exactly the same – no two charities are. Things that work for one charity to demand trust in them and generate confidence that they are having an impact, may scare the living daylights out of another charity’s stakeholders.
Our regulator, like the medical profession, is worried about getting management of this emotional state wrong and being blamed for any fall out. It’s not down to the Charity Commission to work to build trust in charities they argue but rather to build our understanding of the public expectations of us. If the Commission doesn’t talk of being tough on those who step the wrong side of the line and undermine trust – they will be criticised. If they underplay the need for action to address the potential for things to go off the rails then they may be blamed – not just by the media but by all stakeholders.
Yet all the talk of a lack of trust leads us (the public, charities, the media…) to question trust. There is no doubt that trust in the sector has gone down year on year in response to a range of surveys. Some of these are directly undertaken by the Charity Commission others by think tanks and research agencies. All have one thing in common – they ask how the patient is dealing with that painful issue of trust – or lack of it – not just in the charities they support but in the sector as a whole.
We can understand that some people will tell of painful deliveries whereas others, like me, genuinely managed to avoid the agony. Similarly, some people will say that charities are not to be trusted and will say their trust is ‘low’ in response to these surveys but there are also others whose experience of the individual charities to whom they donate or volunteer, is not that they are failing to command the trust and confidence of their stakeholders. And much like the programming of pregnant women to expect childbirth to be excruciatingly painful the more we talk of this terrible crisis of trust the more we create one!
I do not mean in any way to play down the very real sense that some charities have let themselves and the sector down. Nor do I want to be complacent and say that if we just stopped talking about falling trust levels they would spontaneously improve. Much like my birthing story, as individuals our own perceptions are a mixture between what we are told by our peers, what we see and experience and what those in positions of influence or power say with authority.
Baroness Tina Stowell, the chair of the Charity Commission, said in her maiden speech that it wasn’t the ‘Commission’s job … to represent charities to the public, but to represent the public interest to…’ charities. She has a point – but perhaps if we stop focusing on the pain quite so much we may need fewer epidurals!
Originally published in September 2018 of Finance Focus a magazine for CFG members
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