July 20, 2016

Managing the public image of your charity

One of the most delicate issues for a charity to tussle with is justifying their actions from both a public relations perspective as well as a charity law one. This is not an exclusive issue for the third sector – the private sector also experiences this challenge. However, the obligations of a charity to serve the public benefit mean that it will be more heavily scrutinised in the public arena in this respect. Accordingly, charities must show both:

  1. that their actions are taken in the best interests of the charity’s objects, that they have complied with their regulatory obligations, and
  2. be able to explain to the public why the actions they have taken are in keeping with those objects.

Let’s look at an example: consider a charity which is selling a property. It receives an offer (1st Offer) and, after completing what are known as ‘Part 36’ protocols, accepts the offer. Before the charity has exchanged on the 1st Offer it learns of a higher offer (2nd Offer), which is also able to proceed more quickly than the 1st Offer.

Here, the charity is obliged to accept the 2nd Offer even though this will result in it gazumping the 1st Offer. This may surprise many in the media or members of the public who would quite naturally perceive such action to go against charitable behaviour. Such example serves to illustrate the dilemma that many charities may face in taking appropriate steps in fulfilling their objects and maximising their charity’s income.

In addition, the importance of a trusted, visible head of an organisation has long been appreciated in many industries and it is no less important in the charitable sector. Indeed, it is possibly more so because of the trust the public needs to enable them to support it in a practical way. (This could be the Chair of Trustees and/or the Chief Executive.)

The recent fall out from the closure of Kids Company (see our previous post), provides a timely reminder of how crucial the reaction of a Chief Executive or Chairman can be in managing a crisis. Accordingly, public platforms should be used to promptly and thoroughly address any criticism which may have been levelled at the charity - not only to promote their charity’s successes.

Below is an example of a local charity, First Steps Bath (of which I am trustee), which recently faced and successfully managed a serious crisis. Having witnessed at close hand the handling of the situation, I find it illustrates how important appropriate leadership and the ability to address criticism openly, promptly and constructively are all essential in helping to retain and, where necessary, rebuild trust.

First Steps Bath

The charity First Steps Bath relies on a number of income streams – one of which is a nursery.

In October 2015, one of its nursery settings was visited by Ofsted. Following its last Ofsted inspection it had received an “outstanding” rating.

The nursery was on track for another good report until the end of the visit when the inspector discovered a practice which resulted in an automatic “Inadequate” rating. The Chief Executive and senior management team were horrified and incredibly disappointed by the outcome. They had not been aware that this practice was going on and immediately set about carrying out an investigation as to how it could have happened and ensuring that all staff knew this was not permitted. Such investigation adopted a systems approach as opposed to a blame approach which helped to support morale amongst staff.

In addition, a letter was quickly sent to all parents letting them know about Ofsted’s findings. The letter invited parents to a meeting with senior managers and the CEO to discuss their concerns and the steps being taken. The letter also reassured them that they would be seeking to have a revisit as soon as possible and that a number of steps were being taken to ensure that it would not happen again. Within a short period of time a further visit was made by Ofsted and a very “Good” rating was given to the same nursery.

As not only a Trustee, but also a regular supporter of charities and a parent of young children, I was very impressed with First Steps’ response to this crisis. I was particularly impressed that the entire organisation was very much united in setting things right – something that both the trustees and parents using the services could see.

Had the situation not been dealt with so professionally then it may not have taken much for critical observers to analyse more negatively the shortcoming noticed by Ofsted. Fortunately, through prompt and transparent action by First Steps, there was no possibility of this.

Naturally, First Steps does not have a national profile. Nevertheless, it sets an excellent example of maintaining the confidence of its supporters and to justify that faith with an excellent “turn around” of the situation.

It is important that the trustees are aware of when it is appropriate to take advice and ensure that steps are taken and evidenced when important decisions have to be made. Provided they can show the decision making process is carefully considered and their actions (or indeed reactions) justified then they will have much less to fear from any public scrutiny that may occur.

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