Given the altruistic tenets upon which NGOs are typically founded, it is perhaps surprising they hold only the narrowest of leads over business in the field of trust. For instance, between 2012 and 2017, NGOs retained their position as most-trusted of the key institutions including government, business and media in the eyes of the UK general population – but were between only one and six percentage points ahead of business. In 2018, the situation remained much the same, with 46 per cent trusting NGOs over 43 per cent for the private sector according to the Edelman Trust Barometer.
When the 2019 data is revealed in January, however, there could well be a changing of the guard. The scourge of scandal affecting Oxfam and others has undoubtedly rocked the presumed-integrity of many organisations. There has been anger, outrage and (while the dust continues to settle across the industry) there must now be evaluation, followed by reform. Such a complex assessment will inevitably take time, but NGOs must continue to operate in this interim period. This article considers the question of whether the UK’s love affair with NGOs was doomed to fail, and what steps can be taken immediately to rebuild trust through communication.
For the first question, while the above data indicates a continuation of general public trust in NGOs, there is evidence to suggest that academic, practitioner and media scepticism has been building for some time. This is linked to the increase in size, government funding and resultant political importance gained by NGOs in the previous decade, without a necessary and proportionate increase in transparency and regulatory oversight.
Wider than this, it is no secret that media (particularly the right-leaning variety in the UK) have been clamouring for greater scrutiny of NGOs receiving significant portions of the 0.7% of GDP ringfenced by the government in 2015. The abhorrent nature of the Haiti crisis has undoubtedly aided the agenda of such media and likely left many feeling vindicated. But as an FT article by Matthew Green rightly concluded – we must not forget that the aid industry “has saved countless lives and often does an enormous good”.
NGOs – particularly those in the field of humanitarian aid – fulfil a vital role, but the social trust and expectation placed on them by the public in recent years was arguably always unrealistic. The fact that this happened during a perceived period of insufficient ethical and regulatory oversight, has only made matters worse.
As for the second question of how to rebuild trust in NGOs, the immediate communications learning is that they must revaluate the position from which they interact with the outside world. Rather than speaking from a pedestal, NGOs must adopt a more honest, transparent and down-to-earth mode of communication. Using the new and improved ethical and regulatory frameworks that one hopes will result from requisite conduct enquiries, internal communication should also be greatly improved, which will help ensure such abuses of power are not perpetrated again. And finally, they should increase engagement with local companies and organisations achieving measurable social impacts in their countries of operation, a reality set to broaden thanks to the UK’s £150 billion impact investment sector.
The wake of a scandal must always prompt ruthless self-examination. Now is a critical moment for NGOs to ensure that this one prompts change for the good, fosters improved communication and welcomes healthy disruption; all of which can only lead to a resurgence in trust.