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Charities and Public Trust

15th Mar 2018

A few weeks ago, Oxfam’s CEO testified to Parliament that 7,000 people had cancelled their direct debit donations since the Times broke a story on the 9th of February about improprieties by the charity’s employees in Haiti in 2010.

As Daniel Fluskey from the Institute of Fundraising pointed out when interviewed by the BBC: 7,000 is less than 2% of the charity’s direct debit donors. We should not, however, underestimate the impact of public trust on charities’ fortunes. Trust is hard to build and easier to lose.

When contributing to a public good in lab experiments, participants very quickly work out whether their compatriots are trustworthy, and contribute less if they are not. In fact, in our own research, we find that even brief exposure to a social norm that people often cheat at a game isn’t enough to make them cheat themselves – but it does make them less likely to trust others to play by the rules. Seeing that some people don’t play by the same rules as others, and aren’t trustworthy, can affect our perspective of trustworthiness more generally, changing how we behave with other groups or in other areas of our lives, creating a potential ripple effect of low trust.

Trust affects how much people give to charity everyday as well. The size of people’s social networks doesn’t affect how much they give, whereas the amount of social trust within that network does.

This trust also goes beyond a single event or a single charity – the Dutch sociologist Rene Bekkers, analysing data from the Netherlands, finds that higher levels of social trust in general (rather than trust in charities, specifically), leads people to donate more money and to volunteer more. He also finds that charities can increase the extent to which they are trusted (or reduce it), through accreditation schemes which cause both higher trust and more donations.

Charities, which remain widely trusted throughout the UK, need to be mindful of the impact that decisions they take can have not just on how trusted they are, but the wider impacts they can have on trust more generally – which could have larger, longer term consequences.