Seeing ourselves as others see us

Philip Barron reports on the results of market research into how the public views the Quaker faith

Geoffrey Durham (left) with David Smith before the presentation. | Photo: Photo: Trish Carn.

The Good News: people have heard of the Quakers. The Bad News: a lot of them think we are fundamentalists. These were two of the conclusions drawn from a wide market research survey backed by Quaker Quest that may change how Friends tackle outreach in future.  The research was organised by David Smith, former president of the Market Research Society, who gave his services free, and the interview costs were funded by Jospeh Rowntree Charitable Trust. It was carried out in June, involving a random sample of 1,000 people (enough for the results to be valid indicators) in England, Scotland and Wales. The methodology used for the telephone interviews ensured that the survey covered a representative cross-section of all social classes from across the nation. Respondents were not told immediately that the survey was on behalf of Quakers but that it was about ‘awareness of different organisations and institutions in the community’.

Over all, seventy-seven per cent of those questioned had heard of Quakers and a further three per cent admitted to some awareness of the word when prompted. Twenty-three per cent of participants agreed with the statement that the Quakers were a closed group (thirty-nine per cent disagreed and thirty-eight per cent did not know).

The survey revealed considerable confusion about our role and beliefs. That was not surprising, but what the people were confused about was interesting and significant. Even among those aware of Quakers, fifty-nine per cent mentioned at least one inaccuracy (but fifty-five per cent did have at least one accurate perception). However, quite a large number thought that we were strict and puritanical and/or old-fashioned. Four per cent confused Quakers with the pilgrim fathers.

Those interviewed had read to them a statement saying that Quakers are ‘a liberal religious group with no set creed. They believe that everyone can have a direct experience of God and this leads them to take action for change in the world.’ They were then asked whether Quakers had considerable relevance to your life, some possible or no relevance whatsoever’. The ways in which these ‘relevance’ questions were answered were to some extent encouraging. Three quarters of respondents realised that the Quakers are still an active (not dormant) movement, while sixty per cent were aware that we are pacifist/peacemakers. But in the survey as a whole there was a considerable mix of views about what Quakers represent. Half the respondents thought we were ‘very strict’ in our religious outlook (a further three in ten were not sure whether we were strict or not).

There was a spread of views, coupled with much uncertainty, over whether the Quakers were radical/evangelical in their approach or more liberal. A third did not know one way or the other.
When opinions were sought on what might be the ‘best’ ways for Quakers to get over what they stand for, it was significant that talks and events in local communities ranked higher than formal advertising or personal letters to individuals.

What are the lessons we can learn from this research? David Smith suggested that the core communication challenge centres on addressing the uncertainty and confusion that exists about whether Quakers are an open, liberal movement or a fundamentalist, strict or even ‘odd’ cult.

Rachel Rees, head of communications and fundraising for Britain Yearly Meeting said: ‘This market research is very useful to all of us who work to spread the word about the Quaker faith and Quaker work in the world’.

Geoffrey Durham of the Quaker Quest Network said: ‘Quakers are now underneath the radar in terms of public perception, in a way that we possibly weren’t a few years ago. I find it disturbing that an enquirer who is interested in our peace testimony, for example, may at the same time be put off by a nagging feeling that we are a closed evangelical sect.’

Certainly there is much food for thought here both for staff at Friends House responsible for outreach activity and materials, and for Local and Area Meetings. Staff, the Quaker Quest working party and Network Committee will continue to work on the project.

Download David’s presentation for more details of the research.

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