Charity reputations are always on the line..
Way back in 2003, the Scottish voluntary sector struggled with six months of negative media reports about ‘fundraising scandals’ and, as a result, public confidence in charities plummeted. In November, according to a poll in the Herald, one of Scotland’s two national newspapers, 51% of Scots were ‘less likely to give to charity’. The reputation of fundraisers was in tatters, charities reported a decline in giving and the future of the sector in Scotland was at risk.
In an attempt to combat this, a group of charities got together and launched ‘Giving Scotland’, a campaign with the aim of re-building public confidence and kick-starting charity law reform (to see more about the campaign, click here). Together the charities engaged the media to help them understand the work and impact of the sector and created ‘good news’ stories. They developed and delivered a tongue in cheek advertising campaign to encourage the public to think about when they last gave as well as starting a dialogue with decision makers and MSPs. ‘Giving Scotland’ worked and since then a huge amount has been done to rebuild the reputation of the sector, as well as trust and confidence.
UK research conducted in October/November last year on behalf of the Fundraising Standards Board (FRSB) indicated that trust continues to be a more prevalent influential factor on giving for people in Scotland than in other parts of the country (82%, against the UK average of 75% – to see the press release click here).
Warren Buffett said: “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently”.
Starting in February this year and lasting over six weeks, a well known Scottish charity was in the news (Scottish local and national press, radio and television including STV and BBC as well as a feature on Newsnight Scotland) with negative coverage about its major fundraising appeal. Questions were also asked in the Scottish Parliament…
This placed pressure on the Institute of Fundraising in Scotland to ‘do something’. The Chair in Scotland and the Scotland Manager exercised caution – they monitored each article and assessed the impact it was potentially having before making a decision about how to respond. On every occasion, the decision was taken not to engage with the media – the overwhelming risk being that getting involved would make this story wider, about fundraising in general and not about management, personalities or governance in one charity.
Earlier this month, the Institute in Scotland commissioned a poll to examine how, and if, news items and editorials had affected the public’s likelihood to donate to charity in the future. The results showed that the coverage had had virtually no impact whatsoever on the public’s propensity to continue donating to charity in the future (for the results click here).
So, despite pockets of criticism regarding the Institute’s approach and calls to ‘do more’, the considered, cautious tack was absolutely right. It could be argued the reputation of the sector weathered this storm because we are one of the UK’s most trusted institutions, that confidence is robust and remains so because of our strong industry standards, best practice and excellent donor care. However, in my view the reason our sector came out of this relatively unscathed is more to do with the wisdom of a few individuals that took the time to properly think through how fragile our reputation is and make difficult decisions to do things differently.