Bad news might be better than you think

Here are three headlines that you didn’t read on in recent weeks: ‘Police take swift and appropriate action after charity discovers serious crime’; ‘Charity Commission steps in to stop abuse of charitable assets and sector’s reputation’; and finally ‘Researcher reveals issue charities must understand in order to improve its standing’.

You might, however, have comes across the headlines ‘RNLI employee arrested on suspicion of fraud’, ‘Muslim Aid one of thirteen charities named as subjects of statutory inquiries’ and ‘Nearly half of business leaders ‘concerned about professionalism of charity heads’.I’ll admit that my re-jigged headlines aren’t quite as catchy as the real things. But what I hope that they illustrate is that many, if not all, of the negative headlines and bad news stories you will read about the sector, are not really bad or negative in the final analysis. In each of these cases, there is positive action that has taken place in response to possible or actual wrongdoings or shortcomings.

I won’t pretend that the police, the commission or the researcher in question have all the answers or have made perfect responses, but then I’m sure this won’t be the first time you’ve heard that we don’t live in a perfect world.

The sector has become a little obsessed with negative headlines recently. The sector’s reputation in the light of bad news is a formal session title at many a conference I go, or is an issue at which discussion inevitably arrives. However, figures from the start of 2014 compiled by pollsters Ipsos Mori, presented at two high-profile voluntary sector conferences this year, actually suggest a growth in public confidence. Slightly more recently, research from nfpSynergy this week has shown a chunky dip in public confidence – but crucially provides no evidence that media portrayal of the sector actually played a part in that.

At Third Sector HQ, we from time to time get told to lay off the “negative” stories, and that we should act more as the sector’s cheerleader. I think this is naive for several reasons, not least the fact that what is seen as bad news is so often a manifestation of the rule of law, the freedom of speech, the strong enabling environment for enterprise or other features of living and working in this country. The apparently negative headlines might also reflect the fact that while some ill has been done, it is now met with a backlash, or positive reaction.

I’ve lost count of how many people have praised the energy, unity, assertiveness and strength of will that the sector put into opposing the lobbying act, saying that the sector is at its best when it is under pressure. OK, so it might require an unhealthy amount of squinting to re-frame the lobbying act as a good thing for the sector in this light, but otherwise, I would argue, bad news can more often than not be seen as quite the opposite.