Perceptions Blog

Small Charity Index Perceptions: June – August 2019

The Small Charity Index  is the FSI’s quarterly ‘Pulse of the Sector’ report, and has been collecting data every three months since June 2013. The report looks at income, service delivery, workforce and governance, allowing us to track the trends, challenges and opportunities emerging for small charities. Now into the Index’s sixth year of collecting data, we’ve decided to shake things up and release a quarterly blog examining the data that we collect. Here’s what we found looking back at June – August 2019:

Whistleblowing Policies in Small Charities

Over recent years the Charity Commission has highlighted a significant downward trend in public trust in charities, with ratings from their last Trust in Charities report the lowest since records began in 2005. These findings have been replicated by the Charities Aid Foundation, who recorded a significant decrease in both donor numbers and sector trust between 2016 and 2018 – fewer than half (48%) of those asked in 2018 agreed that they ‘believe charities to be trustworthy’. Meanwhile the Charity Commission have linked the concurrent decreases in these metrics, noting that changes in trust levels significantly affect donation behaviour in individuals.

Those in the sector will be all too aware of the negative coverage of high-profile UK charities in recent years, including Oxfam and Save the Children, with broader criticisms around fundraising techniques, safeguarding practices and executive salaries having come to light also. Both these organisation-specific and more wide-reaching scandals seem to have affected public attitudes, with charities generally somewhat tarnished by association with those who have behaved questionably – and indeed in some cases, negligently. Prominent charity whistleblowing incidents might be viewed as something of a double edged sword: increased reports of untrustworthy behaviour are not necessarily a great PR move in the short term, but reliable and transparent routes to lodging these kinds of challenges to charity (mal)practice are key to nurture trust in charities and confidence in their regulators, as well as being vital in themselves to uncover and resolve problematic incidents or working methods.

In this context, we asked our charity members about their own whistleblowing policies. Whistleblower reports to the Charity Commission nearly doubled between 2017/18 and 2018/19 – with an upsurge particularly in safeguarding reports, which overtook governance as the most frequent topic of concern. The increase is identified by the Commission as likely to be a result of the high-profile sector incidents over the period considered.

60% of small charities surveyed told us they have a whistleblowing policy, whilst 34% did not. The remaining 6% of charity leaders responding were unsure either way. These figures are in line with the statistics for companies in the UK – a 2019 report by EQS looking at nearly 1,400 organisations found that 65% of those in the UK have a whistleblowing system in place, and identifies the UK as ‘the European whistleblowing practices leader’ when compared with the equivalent data on other countries. Although the percentage reported via the Index survey is slightly lower, we might interpret the similarity in figures as an indicator that the organisations answering our survey see whistleblowing processes as important, since nearly two-thirds have found the capacity to institute a policy – despite the high demands on time and lack of dedicated HR staff that we know are prevalent in small charities. Understanding of the working of such policies by senior trustees or staff who do have one seems very good, with 94% (of those with a policy) telling us they know how to make such a report, and the same proportion confirming they know what happens after such reports are made. A lower proportion (85%) answered ‘yes’ when asked if they know what protections are in place for those having made a report, showing there is still room for understanding of legal and technical aspects of the process to grow.

It is certainly good practice to have a whistleblowing policy in place, and although this is not a requirement enshrined in law, it is ‘unlawful to subject someone to a detriment or to dismiss them because they have raised a whistleblowing concern in the workplace’. Volunteers and the self-employed are not covered by these protections, however. Almost half of our respondents (47%) confirmed that whistleblowers can remain anonymous throughout the reporting process at their charity – this is not a legal requirement either, where a policy does exist, although Government guidance does specify that maintaining confidentiality for those making reports is best practice.

Charities are a distinctive type of organisation, and this has implications for the nature of popular scrutiny – but we might identify an uptick in negative commentary as part of a trend of increasing scepticism towards institutions in general, in the UK and elsewhere. This could be seen as a positive move towards more transparency across the board, making it even more imperative that the sector is committed, and seen to be committed, to monitoring and reporting processes that help ensure trustworthy behaviour. Charities face unique challenges in terms of public perception: whereas a scandal engulfing a for-profit company isn’t usually seen to reflect on the private sector in general, attitudes towards charities are different. Where an organisation’s functioning depends heavily on donations, understandably the collective feeling towards its reputability has a different tone. This special status in the minds of the public contributes to a sense that any actions by charities and their staff should be demonstrably beyond reproach, by definition, as their function is one of benevolence, rather than profit-seeking. Charities falling short, then, are sometimes seen to indicate a flaw in the concept of charity itself – unlike companies financed by market transactions, who are not specifically characterised by pursuit of philanthropic ends. This status, and the failings that have been reported so widely in the media, contribute towards a situation whereby according to the Charity Commission, ‘charities are trusted less than the average man or woman in the street’.

But it’s not all bad news. Despite the recent decline, the same report notes that charities are still more trusted than private companies, banks or politicians. It also finds that young people self-report higher trust in charities than earlier generations – whilst only around 30% of those aged 55 and over indicated this outlook, trust in those aged between 18 and 24 is 70% higher according to the Charity Commission findings, at 51%. In terms of legislation, the whistleblowing charity Protect note that since the introduction of the Public Interest Disclosure Act in 1998, which covers protections for this type of informant, the UK have started  ‘to fall behind internationally’ in light of newer and more robust protections elsewhere. With the EU’s new whistleblower directive coming into force in 2021, hopefully the current Government will look to update legislation, living up to the stated intention to make Britain ‘the best place in the world to work’.

Have your say:

The FSI can only amplify the voice of small charities if you take part in our Index survey. The survey is open four times a year, with prizes for those who take part in more than one.

Click here to sign up to the Index mailing list so you’re the first to know when the survey is open.

Information and Resources

If you are interested in finding out more, government guidance on reporting serious wrongdoing is available here . A guide for employers is also published online, outlining what whistleblowing policies should include. Click here for the Charity Commission page for supporters and other members of the public to submit complaints or concerns.

You can get in touch with the Charity Commission on

In June 2019 the Charity Commission launched a pilot of a whistleblower information hotline, run by the independent charity Protect, which is still live at the time of posting on 0800 055 7214. Protect have further links to information and advice at


Charities Aid Foundation, CAF UK Giving 2019

Charity Commission, Trust in Charities 2018

Charity Commission, Whistleblowing disclosures made to the Charity Commission for England and Wales 2018 to 2019

EQS, Whistleblowing Report 2019

GOV.UK, Whistleblowing: Guidance for Employers

Pepper-Parsons, Andrew, Protect website

Protect, Who is protected

Queen’s Speech, December 2019

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