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The State of Public Trust in Charities

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You probably saw the headline: “1 in 3 Americans Lacks Faith in Charities, Chronicle Poll Finds.” But there’s another way to interpret the results of the new Chronicle of Philanthropy survey on public trust in charities. As the first sentence of their October 5, 2015, story states: “Almost two-thirds of Americans have a great deal or a fair amount of confidence in charities, according to a new Chronicle poll—the first to measure public views on that question since 2008.”

Clearly, we have a good news/bad news scenario here. One out of one GuideStar employee, however, believes the good outweighs the bad. Here’s why:

The Good News

  • Technically, public trust in the sector dropped, but only a little, and only in the short term.
    Some 62 percent of the respondents to this year’s survey expressed “a great deal” or “a fair amount” of confidence in charities. That’s only a slight drop from 64 percent in 2008, exactly the same figure as in 2005, and up from 60 percent in 2003.
    the state of public trusts in charities
  • Even more people have confidence in local charities.
    Conventional wisdom holds that familiarity breeds contempt, but fundraisers will tell you that familiarity breeds support. Perhaps that is why 69 percent of participants reported confidence in their local charities.
  • The vast majority of respondents believe charities do a good job of helping people and running their programs and services.
    Eighty-two percent said charities do a good job helping people, and 73 percent approve of how charities run their programs and services. It’s encouraging that so many people believe charities are succeeding in these vital areas.
  • The majority (60 percent) of participants believe charities spend money wisely.
    It’s also nice to know that donors can see beyond the myriad negative reports about how individual charities spend money.
  • Ninety-two percent of respondents ranked evidence of effectiveness as the most important factor in deciding whether or not to support a charity.
    This is music to GuideStar’s ears. We’ve argued for years that what matters most about a charity is whether it’s accomplishing its mission. It’s exciting to see that so many people feel the same way.

The Bad News

  • The Overhead Myth is alive and well.
    Eighty-four percent of respondents said they make giving decisions based on how much charities spend on compensation, administration, and fundraising. (Sigh.)
  • Four out of 10 respondents believe charities do not spend their money wisely.
    That’s a significant number, even if it doesn’t represent the majority opinion. And what did respondents cite most frequently (37 percent) as an example of unwise spending? Administrative costs, identified as salaries and overhead. Further proof of the Overhead Myth’s persistence.
  • Executive compensation continues to be an issue for donors.
    Forty-one percent of participants feel charity leaders are overpaid. Another 34 percent believe the salaries are appropriate, and 10 percent believe they’re too low.

Going Forward

Of course, now is not the time for charities to rest on their laurels. Instead, they need to build on the trust that people already have in them. Every charity needs to state its mission clearly, provide concrete evidence of its effectiveness, and educate the public about complexities that affect its work.

Shameless GuideStar Plug

One way to build or sustain trust in your organization to update your GuideStar Nonprofit Profile. If your nonprofit is registered with the IRS as tax exempt, you have a profile on GuideStar. Profiles based solely on IRS records frequently offer only limited information.

GuideStar invites every nonprofit in our database to update its profile—for free. By updating, you tell your organization's full, most up-to-date story to the 7 million people who visit GuideStar each year—and to the millions more who see profile information on the more than 150 sites and applications that display GuideStar data.

Update your organization's profile today. Have questions about updating or can't find your nonprofit on GuideStar? Contact us and let us help.


The State of Public Trust in Charities Suzanne Coffman

Suzanne Coffman is GuideStar’s editorial director.

Topics: Trends