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“No room for complacency” – charity regulator welcomes rise in trust, but reminds charities that public expectations remain high

New research shows trust in charities is gradually recovering, to a 6-year high, and that the pandemic is having an uneven impact on charities.

The Charity Commission has welcomed research findings suggesting trust in charities is continuing to recover after hitting an all-time low three years ago. But the regulator says trust remains fragile, and that charities must respond to underlying public expectations if they are to fully return to levels of trust last seen a decade ago.

The independent study, carried out by Yonder, finds that charities are among the most trusted groups in society, third only after doctors and the police. This compares to a significant dip in comparative trust three years ago – in 2018 people said they trusted the ‘ordinary man or woman on the street’ more than charities.

The findings also indicate that a decade-long decline in people’s perception of charities’ importance in society has partially reversed – 60% of those asked say charities play an important or very important role, compared to 55% last year.

The Commission says the uptick may be linked in part to the COVID-19 pandemic, and charities’ visible role in responding to the national crisis, notably in areas such as food poverty and support for NHS and other key workers. Meanwhile, very high-profile scandals in household name charities appear to be retreating in the collective memory.

But researchers conclude that there is “no room for complacency”, with people from diverse walks of life sharing consistently high expectations of charities. The findings confirm that the key drivers of trust in charities have not changed during the pandemic, and that people expect charities to:

  • show that they make a positive difference
  • spend a high proportion of funds on the end cause, and
  • live their values, showing charity not just in what they do, but how they behave along the way

Helen Stephenson, chief executive of the Charity Commission, recently said:

It is vital that we learn the right lessons from this research. The pandemic has been a momentous event in our collective experience, with charities proving their value time and again. But it has not changed people’s fundamental expectations of charity. More than ever, people need evidence that charities are not ends in themselves, but vehicles for making the world a better place, both through what they achieve, and the values they live along the way.

This research also reminds us that while the public shares the same basic expectations of charity, people have different attitudes depending on who they are and where they come from. If they are to continue rebuilding trust, charities must recognise and respect this diversity, and engage with a wide range of views and attitudes. I encourage charities to read the research and respond to its findings.

Uneven impact of pandemic on charities

In a further piece of independent research, Yonder asked how charities have been impacted by the pandemic in the short term.

A survey of over 2,700 trustees finds that COVID-19 has had an uneven impact on the sector, with smaller charities much more likely to have halted services. A quarter of charities with incomes of less than £10,000 say they were forced to cease all their services, compared to only 3% of charities with incomes of £500,000 or more. In contrast, those largest charities were more likely to have moved their existing services online (63%) and to have helped directly with the pandemic (36%).

As fundraising events were curtailed, over a quarter of the largest charities (> £500,000) were able to find alternative sources of income, compared to only 5% of the smallest (<£10,000). Around half of the largest charities used furlough or emergency government support, and 17% of them accessed the government’s £750m fund set up specifically for the voluntary sector. Smaller charities were less likely to have accessed either.

However, while most charities report significant challenges arising from the pandemic, some say the crisis has also resulted in longer-term benefits, including better and quicker decision making.

Helen Stephenson, recently said:

The charity sector is incredibly diverse, ranging from tiny kitchen table charities operating on a shoestring to large, complex national or international organisations. And it is clear that whilst the pandemic has deeply affected all charities, it has done so in myriad ways. Its longer-term impact, on charities of all sizes, remains uncertain, but at the Commission we will continue to play our part in helping the sector to succeed into the future.

The researchers also conducted in-depth interview with 20 trustees of a diverse range of charities.

The two strands of research made a range of findings relevant to the Commission’s work as regulator, including that:

  • Trustees’ views are often aligned with those of the public. Most trustees recognise the importance of taking public expectations into account, and feel a sense of collective responsibility to uphold the sector’s reputation. Trustees feel even more strongly than the public that how charities go about their work is as important as what they achieve.
  • Many trustees have a sense of pride in their responsibilities and enjoy dedicating time to being a trustee and those trustees who took part in qualitative conversations rarely said they felt overburdened.
  • The Commission’s guidance is only currently accessed by a minority, but praised by most of those who do use it. It is most often used when people first become trustees and to get to grips with specific, complex issues.

The full research reports are available on

Press office


Notes to Editors:

  1. Contact the Charity Commission press office at
  2. The Charity Commission is the independent, non-ministerial government department that registers and regulates charities in England and Wales. Its purpose is to ensure charity can thrive and inspire trust so that people can improve lives and strengthen society.


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