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Charities trusted, survey says

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By Todd Cohen

Most Americans trust charities and donate more to them than do Americans who don’t trust charities, which need to work hard to keep that trust, a new survey says.

Roughly two in three Americans agree charities are honest and ethical, while nearly nine in 10 Americans voice confidence in charities, says “Keeping the Trust: Confidence in Charitable Organizations in an Age of Scrutiny,” a survey by Independent Sector, a nonprofit research and advocacy group.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, the survey says, the number of Americans viewing charities as honest and ethical climbed to nearly three in four, the most since Independent Sector started tracking trust in charities in 1990, although that number later returned to the levels of recent years.

Those high levels of trust are good news for charities, the survey says: Americans who believe charities are honest and ethical and who also have confidence in them donate $1,800 a year on average to charity, compared to $1,500 donated by those who share neither opinion.

Still, charities face big challenges in keeping that trust, says Peter Shiras, Independent Sector’s senior vice president for programs.

“Leaders of charitable organizations should not be complacent at all about these high levels of trust,” he says. “We are in an age of scrutiny and that scrutiny already is extending itself into the charitable sector.”

Nonprofits, he says, should pay constant attention to their ethical and accounting practices, to strengthening their boards and governance, to effective stewardship of resources and to being open with the public about their fundraising practices.

In the 12 years Independent Sector has tracked public attitudes about charitable groups, Americans with positive attitudes have ranged from seven in 10 in 1990 to roughly six in 10 in the late 90s and nearly two in three in recent years.

Scandals at the United Way of America and other big nonprofits in the 1990s helped erode those attitudes, prompting the nonprofit sector to push the Internal Revenue Service to enforce new penalties for nonprofits in cases of abuse – and to work harder to be fully accountable and open to the public, Independent Sector says.

“These efforts appear to be helping to restore levels of public trust in nonprofit organizations, despite growing public concern over the accountability of for-profit corporations and media reports of programs at a few nonprofit groups,” the survey says.

It also reports strong support for charities that responded to the Sept. 11 attacks. More than 85 percent of those who believe charities in general are honest and ethical also say Sept. 11 charities are honest and ethical, while more than 40 percent of those who do not consider charities in general to be honest and ethical still have a positive view of Sept. 11 charities, the survey says.

It says confidence in charities was “remarkably stable” both before and after Sept. 11, with nearly nine in 10 Americans voicing confidence in charities in separate surveys in July 2001 and December 2001.

Paul Light of the Brookings Institution suggests that stability raises the question “not why confidence in charitable organizations remained the same, but why it did not soar,” Independent Sector says.

Controversy over the handling of Sept. 11 relief funds by the Red Cross, Light says, “may have acted as a brake on public confidence, freezing it at its pre-September levels.”

But Independent Sector says confidence levels already were so high before Sept. 11 that “there may not have been much room for improvement.”

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