By Nicole Sykes, Director of Policy and Communications at PBE

The leading international measure of trust - the Edelman Trust Barometer - makes for some grim reading. The public’s faith in our institutions and our politicians has continued to tumble, with the UK population now the least trusting of the populations of 28 countries overall. 

This fall in the UK’s trust was driven primarily by a decline in trust in the government and the media. Both of these measures dropped significantly, with trust in government plunging for the third year in a row, following a bounce in trust in 2021 around the vaccine rollout. Trust in business also dipped by two percentage points following a general increase, while trust in NGOs remained the same.

The reasons for the decline in trust are manifold and complex, and the solutions are much harder to find.

It seems pertinent then to look to those who do still hold the nation’s trust, to understand what they’re doing differently. The charity sector is one such group. A recent survey by the Charity Commission showed that trust in charities is twice as high as it is in government ministers. It is also on the way up, while trust in people delivering public services – like doctors and the police – is in decline.

Charities serving the most disadvantaged in society overflow with stories of people who have put their trust in them when they trusted no one else. Perhaps it is because their staff and volunteers, driven by passion and purpose, have been able to spend time to build relationships with a young person excluded from school, or a homeless person let down by services in the past. Perhaps it is because their ability to fill a niche and focus means that a woman fleeing a forced marriage knows her culture will be respected by a specialised refuge, or that the parents of a child with complex needs know that they will be understood by the specialist charity supporting them.

The charity sector is by no means a utopia. But charities certainly have expertise that leaders in our society should be lining up to access. There have been more Prime Minister’s Business Advisory Groups over the past decade than there have been prime ministers, but not a single one drawn from the charity sector. According to research by Pro Bono Economics, the Treasury regularly works with 385 external partners through its working groups. Charities, social enterprises and community groups make up just 3% of the participants.

There are some mechanical tweaks that could draw the two together. Every government department which has civil servant teams employed to shepherd businesses through Whitehall and keep them informed should have the same for charities. More civil servants should be encouraged to be charity trustees and volunteers. But real commitment to partnership has to be led from the politicians at the top.

Because not only are charities more trusted than politicians, they are also trust creators. A distrusting society is a disaffected society – disengaged, disempowered, disconnected. For so many people, charities and community groups are the antidote to that. You need only step inside a well-run youth club or community choir to see those connections being formed, or observe the work of survivor support charities to watch despair turn into empowerment. Maybe by learning from charities, the leaders of our governments and institutions can be trust creators too.