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Winning Back Public Confidence in the Charity Sector


Expert analysis from Tom Shipsey, CEO of Stonehouse Marketing and Chair of Concern Worldwide.

There was a seismic shift in the Irish public’s relationship with the charity sector in 2012. In April of that year, the proportion of the population which trusted charities was at a high of 74%. By November 2016, after a series of governance failures within the sector came to light, it had bottomed out at 43%. The intervening period was dramatic, brutal and painful – for charity trustees, staff, supporters and, most critically, for those who benefit from charitable programmes. The ‘perfect storm’ of a reduction in confidence and an economic crisis – both of which led to significant falls in fundraising income – coincided with an unprecedented increase in demand for charitable services, both domestically and internationally.

The sector hasn’t been sitting on its hands while this has gone on around them. Market research tells us that the public think that the three most important things in driving trust are the publication of a comprehensive annual report; compliance with the Governance Code; and the charity following the highest standards in fundraising. Achieving this standard, known as the “triple-lock”, is, rightly, difficult. Charities Institute Ireland, a representative body for the sector, tracks organisations who fulfil these three criteria. Currently, that exclusive group numbers less than one hundred. Encouragingly, there are hundreds more on the journey to full compliance.

Separately, the Carmichael Centre, working alongside a number of sectoral bodies, launched the Good Governance Awards in 2016, with the purpose of supporting and encouraging adherence to good governance practice by non-profit organisations in Ireland.

The State also has a role to play. Vital to the rebuilding of public confidence is the Charity Regulator. Originally announced in the 2009 Charities Act, the office was finally established in 2014. The Regulator has been particularly focused on the role of trustees in ensuring charities are properly managed and make best use of assets in the delivery of their charities purpose. The authority has paid particular attention to promoting and encouraging trustee competence.

Much has happened over the past five or so years: poor practice has meant that public confidence in charities has been significantly undermined. In response, charities have established initiatives to drive, and recognise, good practice. Also, the Regulator, whose vision is a vibrant, trusted, charity sector that is valued for the public benefit it provides, has been established and resourced.

Public confidence, that most critical and fragile of characteristics, has begun a slow recovery. By April 2017, it crept up to 50%. Still too low, but at least a move in the right direction. There is also evidence (from organisations such as 2into3, publishers of annual reviews of charity fundraising performance) of growth in some sectors – particularly those focused on health and homelessness.

In Concern, I am proud to chair an organisation that greatly values good governance and has appropriately invested. It has paid off. The organisation, which is one of the first in the country to be triple-lock compliant, won a special recognition award at the inaugural Good Governance awards in 2016, acknowledging Concern’s long-term commitment to transparency and accountability. There is no point, however, in sitting on our laurels: without public support and trust, there would be no Concern.

Tom Shipsey is CEO of Stonehouse Marketing and Chair of Concern Worldwide. Tom can be contacted at TShipsey@stonehouse.ie

The views expressed in the posts and comments of this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of the Institute of Directors in Ireland. They should be understood as the personal opinions of the author. The content of this blog is for information purposes only and the Institute of Directors in Ireland is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied.