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Public Confidence in Charities Rebounds Slightly

(Sept. 18, 2006) Public confidence in U.S. charities has risen slightly since Sept. 11, 2001, but still has not returned to the level of trust experienced before that day, according to a new survey.

Confidence in Charitable Organizations, 2006, conducted in July 2006 by the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service at New York University in New York City, found that 69 percent of Americans expressed a great deal or a fair amount of confidence in charities. That figure represents a 5 percent increase from the July 2005 survey and a 9 percent increase from the September 2002 survey.

While the responses suggest that public confidence is beginning to rebound, the current level of trust is still dwarfed by the 90 percent of respondents who expressed a great deal of trust in charities pre-Sept. 11.

Whether the current numbers reflect a solid, long-term increase in public confidence is unclear. The survey suggests that the 2006 figures may indicate “a significant turning point” as the nation neared the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. 

Spending Money Wisely

Spending money wisely seems to be the key concern for many in the public. When asked which problem for charities was greater, wrong priorities or unwise spending, just 17 percent responded with wrong priorities, while 73 percent said charities have the right priorities but don’t spend money wisely.

Despite the increase in confidence, many other measures of trust and performance remain relatively unchanged between the 2005 and 2006 surveys:

  • 18 percent of Americans said charitable organizations do a very good job running their programs and services, compared with 19 percent in 2005
  • 18 percent said charitable organizations do a very good job being fair in their decisions, compared with 16 percent in 2005
  • 11 percent said charitable organizations do a very good job spending money wisely, compared with 11 percent in 2005
  • 44 percent of Americans said the executive directors of charitable organizations are paid too much, a level of concern that remained essentially unchanged between 2005 and 2006
  • 71 percent of Americans said that charitable organizations waste a great deal or fair amount of money, up from 66 percent in 2005 and 60 percent in October 2003 when the question was first asked

Building Confidence

Through advanced statistical analysis, the study found that the most powerful predictor of confidence in charities was confidence and trust in the American Red Cross. As the study put it, “As the Red Cross goes, so goes the rest of the sector.” Similarly, the second-most powerful predictor was confidence and trust in the United Way.

However, efficient programs and services, spending money wisely and helping people are also important predictors. Individuals who believe charities are doing those things are far more likely to have confidence in the sector, and thus the work of all charities is critical to increasing public trust.

Since the public believes charities already have the right priorities, the study encourages organizations to focus on achieving missions and producing measurable results, not necessarily “showing the faces of the people they serve.” Good intentions and feel-good stories may not be enough without being able to show proof of success through performance and results.

About the Survey

A report about the survey is available online at the Robert G. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service website.

The survey was conducted in early to mid-July and involved a national telephone survey of 1,000 randomly selected adults. The survey, conducted on behalf of the Wagner School’s Organizational Performance Initiative by Prince Survey Research Associates International, has a margin of error of plus-or-minus 3 percent.

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