October 3, 2018; The Guardian
Years ago, NPQ talked with a philanthropic leader in the UK who commented that the US nonprofit sector is often happy to see itself as the gold standard for the world—and loath to learn new insights and approaches from elsewhere. This he saw as a disturbing arrogance that blocked learning and, indeed, we have noted here at NPQ that there is generally less interest in civil sector stories that emanate from elsewhere in the world…which is to say, we need to pay far more attention to these, including this one—applying that broader thinking to our own situations.
In fact, to help us all make that leap, NPQ would like to ask its readers: What do you think may currently be eroding the public trust (and household giving) in nonprofits in the United States? Conversely, what do you think may bolster it?
The UK’s 168,000 registered charities raise more than £76.7 billion a year despite lingering and new scandals, such as the notorious Presidents Club, and surveys that continue to show in 2018 that public trust in charities is sliding. The social affairs correspondent of the Guardian, Robert Booth, reports on the work Tina Wendy Stowell, Baroness Stowell of Beeston, the new Chair of the UK’s Charity Commission, is doing to strengthen the sector.
Reporting in advance of the speech Stowell gave today at the Royal Society of Arts, Booth writes about the “concept of charity” being under attack and that Stowell’s speech will “single out aggressive fundraising practices, the exploitation of vulnerable people, and single-minded pursuit of organizational growth at the expense of charitable objectives, as examples of bad behavior that should cease.” Booth asserts that Stowell may be using this opportunity to also embolden her appeal for more government funding of the Charity Commission following years of budget cuts.
Stowell’s speech coincides with the publishing of the Charity Commission’s five-year Statement of Strategic Intent, from which Booth excerpts statements below that he anticipates Stowell will declare in her speech. This new message is not meant to replace the commission’s statutes, but to make clear that regulation is a means to an end and not an end in itself.
“The public has seen questionable behavior and concluded—you are not who you appear to be.” She will warn that charities no longer enjoy a monopoly on people’s altruistic impulses, with crowdfunding, peer-to-peer apps and social enterprises offering competition.
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“A charity, to inspire trust, must be more than an organization with laudable aims,” Stowell will say. “It must be a living example of charitable purpose, charitable attitude and charitable behavior.”
Stowell will say charities should avoid extravagance, be transparent and show a “relentless focus on the welfare of your beneficiaries, rather than the interests of your own organization”. She will add: “Being a registered charity will need to amount to more than it does today if that status is to survive let alone thrive.”
The commission’s Statement of Strategic Intent establishes five objectives. They are holding charities to account, dealing with wrongdoing and harm, informing public choice, giving charities the understanding and tools they need to succeed, and keeping charity relevant for today’s world. The commission’s action plan to meet these objectives will be worked out over time.
Whatever its weaknesses, the nonprofit sector in the US and in the UK provides a vibrant greenhouse for the continuing growth of generosity, volunteering, participation, and community. Despite the scandals and imperfect surveys, the sector’s long-term mission is to keep improving, and there is no evidence indicating that it won’t. NPQ may not hesitate to examine the sector’s failures and encourage reform, but only because there is such value and promise in what we are all trying to preserve and grow.
So, we return to our original question, considering Dr. Patrick Rooney’s recent finding that the number of households giving to nonprofits is declining: Do you think this may have something to do with trust, and what do you think may be eroding trust in the nonprofit sector in the United States?—Jim Schaffer