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A matter of perception?

Joe Saxton, co-founder of the consultancy nfpSynergy said this month that there is a gulf between the public’s perception of charities and how charities in fact operate.

There has been much debate on charity salaries following an investigation by the Daily Telegraph into the salaries of international charities’ chief executives.  Meanwhile a recent survey by nfpSynergy showed that 75% of those questioned believed that a charity’s chief executive was an administration cost, whilst only 3% believed that spending on a chief executive’s salary was spending on the cause. The public in fact estimate that charities spend 36 percent of their income on administration, far more than the 16 percent they deemed, on average, to be acceptable for these costs. Ironic given that as Saxton points out ‘for the vast majority of charities, what they actually spend on admin is probably even lower than the figure people say they are happy to accept’.  Meanwhile many charities would support the view that low administration costs in fact do not reflect effectiveness, despite this being such a popular measure in public perception. This Guardian article shows that skimping on overheads can actually be a false economy, and that charities need to spend in order to be effective. In the research by Givewell cited in the article, it is the charities with a higher admin spend that are the ones performing better.  

Communications play a role in trying to bridge this gap between what the public think charities are doing and what they actually do. In order to maintain public support charities not only demonstrate the impact that they are having, but also communicate the basic nuts-and-bolts of what they are doing and what they spend money on. For organisations wishing to tighten up their communications, the NIDOS Effectiveness Toolkit includes a number of benchmarks that you can work through in order to set you on the right track to effective communications:


  • We communicate effectively with our supporters, members & affiliates
  • We have an effective communication strategy
  • We record, track, report on & scrutinise our finances carefully