05/03/2014 06:10 GMT | Updated 04/05/2014 06:59 BST

Mind the Gap: What the Public Thinks About Charities

Today NPC publishes research with Ipsos MORI looking at the public's attitude to charities. There is a wealth of interesting material uncovered by the polling and set out in our report. But in thinking about the research a number of things have occurred to me that are particularly worth sharing.

The research highlights the difference between what the public think charities ought to do and what they think they actually do. This is potentially a very important 'gap'. If the public want charities to do one thing but think they spend all their time doing another, then we have a major lurking issue around the sustainability of public support and trust. Charities will either have to change or they will have to convince the public that some of the things they don't like are in fact important. Running costs (including CEO pay) and delivering public services fall squarely in this category--as do lobbying and advocacy, if less disliked.

We cannot compare this against reality. For instance, we found that only 11% think charities should be running a service that is currently run by the state, while 16% think this is what they spend most of their time doing. I would guess that both figures underestimate the increasing activity of charities in this area - but I don't know. We can see how much of the sector's income is made up of grants and contracts, which is over a third, but this is not the same as 'time spent' on an activity--an amorphous concept in itself. It does make me think that if we want to defend and improve the sector we would perhaps benefit from more information on exactly what charities do spend their time on, with breakdowns by sector, size etc.

As I looked through the results it became obvious to me once again that a lot of people hold a particular model of charity at the back of their head. They (the public) participate in sponsored runs, cough up for chuggers and drop coins in collection tins, sort of believing that their money goes straight to the starving child in Africa, the boffin working away on a cure for cancer or the needy person suffering from dementia. In such a world, anything to do with running costs is problematic. And the idea that some of those miles you just ran might instead line the CEO's pocket is particularly offensive.

It is a hard model to shift. To the extent that one can sit people down and take them through some of the issues, the image can be challenged, often successfully. How do you think we can really best help these kids? How do we make sure our money goes to the right ones? Don't we care about prevention as well as alleviation, and how do we make a real difference in many cases without campaigning for policy change? How do we get our people trained up to help? What sort of organisation do you think we need and how do we build that without a decent (and paid) leader?

So, in a way, NPC's challenge to charities--to talk to the public about its changing role, and commit to transparency on spending and impact--is also a plea to them to stop perpetuating this naïve image of the charity model because it helps raise donations, and start telling the truth.

Impact--what charities achieve for the people they exist to serve--should sit at the core of earning and maintaining public trust, as I have argued before. We should be under no illusions how hard it will be to replace what for many charities is an inaccurate version of their modus operandus with a more realistic one, but it is a task we should be up for.

On the whole I take a lot of comfort from the findings. The public--as ever--are very sympathetic to the basic idea of charities. So that is one in the teeth for those who seem keen on putting charities back in their boxes as relics of a soft, do-gooding activist era.

But there are very serious lessons for our sector that cannot remain hidden behind the public's desire to want to like them. We can get away with some things for at least some of the time, but it is not, in truth, an honest or sustainable strategy.