In the midst of party conference season, there can be no doubt that charities are well and truly on the political agenda.
Following a summer in which charities have rarely been out of the news, last week saw the publication of the government-commissioned review of fundraising self-regulation. Sir Stuart Etherington's report rightly proposed a robust new regulatory regime and a better, clearer way for donors to say 'no' to further fundraising requests if they feel things have got out of hand.
It's easy to take for granted the huge levels of trust in our charities. But people's very real concerns about fundraising show how easily trust can be diminished. Trust must be earned and all of us in voluntary organisations have to take action to win and retain the confidence of our supporters and make sure we continue the proud tradition of systematic generosity in this country.
The size and passion of the audience at the Charities Aid Foundation's packed-out fringe event at Labour Party Conference in Brighton last weekend demonstrated that there is no shortage of appetite in the political world to engage with charities. This weekend sees the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester, where doubtless we will see the same enthusiasm for all manner of charitable causes.
With the Charities Bill currently working its way through parliament and the ink only just dry on Sir Stuart's review, it's the right time to look at what Conservative voters and the party's MPs, think of charities.
CAF's latest research, 'Under the Microscope: Examining the Future of Charities in Britain,' does exactly that. Through detailed polling of MPs and the public carried out by ComRes, it gives the first full insight into the how recent high profile fundraising controversies have affected the way parliamentarians and the public view charities, and how they perceive the role that charities play in society.
It is clear that one of the biggest challenges charities now face is to rebuild trust. Encouragingly, the majority of the public and MPs consider charities to be trustworthy. However, in a sector where trust is traditionally very high, there was been a significant fall since last year, with high profile fundraising debacles clearly having taken a toll.
This is a problem for all charities to overcome - not least the small and medium sized voluntary organisations which are suffering from a fundraising row not of their own making.
Strikingly, our work shows that MPs are generally more likely to hold a positive view of charities than the public. They have more trust in charities (73% vs 57%) and are much more inclined to agree that charities help create a more vibrant community life (86% v 50%).
One explanation is that politicians work closely with charities and see first-hand the difference they make. This suggests that forging closer links with the public, links which go deeper than fundraising phone calls, will pave the way back to restoring public trust for charities.
Significantly for charities, Conservative MPs are much more likely than those of other parties to be supportive of charities delivering further public services. Most believe charities deliver services effectively (75%) and two-thirds of Conservative MPs agreed it was important for government to expand the role of charities in the delivery of public services (65%). By contrast, 16% of Labour MPs and 12% of the public thought this should be one of the government's priorities.
But Conservative MPs are also less likely than MPs on the other side of the chamber to agree that charities providing public services should be protected from spending cuts. Our polling shows that almost two-thirds of Labour MPs (65 per cent) agreed with this, while more than three in four Conservatives did not (77 per cent).
Interestingly, Conservative voters are likely to have opposing views. Only 14% thought government should prioritise expanding the role of charities in delivering public services while a majority (55%) agreed that those charities providing services should not be a focus for cuts.
Conservative voters also have views more closely aligned with the other parties in their support for charities speaking out where they believe government policy will have a negative impact on people. 60% of Conservative voters agreed charities should have this advocacy role, compared with only one in three (33%) Conservative MPs.
At this critical juncture for charities it's vital that we nurture civil society and build on the close relationship between charities, politicians and the electorate. Charities do much to improve policymaking through their advocacy, and strengthen society in ways the public and private sectors cannot. They are often more effective because they are close to people and communities and are able to offer personalised support. If charities bear the brunt of spending cuts this would impact on those they serve, and will also have a detrimental effect on local and national government which benefits hugely from the work of volunteers and not-for-profit organisations.
For our part, those in charity leadership must now work together to rebuild trust, forge stronger relationships with their generous supporters and strengthen our proud culture of giving in this country.