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A recent study shows that trust in nonprofits—as well as government, media, and business—is down. Here are some ideas to fight that trend.

Trust in American institutions is down. Trust in nonprofits dropped by 5% this year, dipping below the halfway mark to 45%. Trust in business also dropped by 5% down to 49%. Trust in government is down 3% to 39%, and media dipped 6% to 39%. In every institution measured, trust is down.

This data comes from the 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer (ETB) which was released earlier this month. Since 2001, the ETB has conducted an annual study that seeks to assess the state of trust globally and in individual countries.

At first blush, the 2022 study may appear to be rather alarming. But it might not be in fact.

Leslie Lenkowsky, professor emeritus of public affairs and philanthropic studies at Indiana University, was quoted in the Chronicle of Philanthropy saying that he does not believe U.S. nonprofits should be alarmed. “A 5-percentage point decline in trust is ‘not much on a year-to-year basis,’ he said.”

That may be so—and as recently as 2019, nonprofits saw a 9% decline in trust—but what is alarming about 2022 is a decline in trust across the board. (The same trend is observable in 2018 and 2014, as well.)

The 2022 data might not be that uniquely alarming for nonprofits, but the study is indicative of a broader trend in America: lack of trust in institutions. If this year’s numbers in isolation aren’t cause for particular concern, this broader trend is.

And that trend forces a question upon us: how can fundraisers and nonprofit professionals address this trend to help renew trust in nonprofits and civil society?


ONE: Mutual Aid Societies

It’s a term that we don’t use much anymore, but “mutual aid societies” are those non-governmental, non-commercial organizations that come together to fill a specific purpose in the life of a community. They constitute our civil society.

They gather together members of a shared community to do something for that community. In the face of a waning trust in nonprofits, we might start to think about whether we are being clear about our purpose and achieving or making progress on that purpose.
Many fear that nonprofits they give to might not have a clear purpose or really be working to attain their goals. Organizations can avoid these accusations by being very clear about what it is that they do. Set your priorities, communicate wins to your audience, and be transparent about both your progress and your challenges.

TWO: Remain local

The ETB also states that “Circles of Trust Become More Local.” This page of the study indicates that trust in outsiders has decreased: an 8% drop in trust of people from other countries and a 2% drop in trust of people who live in other states, provinces, or regions. However, people feel more closely associated with those they see on a day-to-day basis. There was a 7% increase in how close people feel to neighbors and a 6% increase among co-workers.

This is all to say something we all already know intuitively: you trust people that you know. If nonprofits desire to be trusted institutions, they should get to know their members and donors. Pick up the phone and call your donors and members. Spend time getting to know them at your events. Introduce them to each other. You will cultivate trust and bonds of affection in your organization’s community.

You may not be able to be physically local to your constituency as a national or international organization, but someone at the organization should strive to know as many of your supporters as possible.

THREE: Cultivate real, flesh and blood, relationships

Zoom relationships are not real relationships. As we become increasingly virtual—our meetings, events, relationships—we expose ourselves to distrust across individuals and institutions. We are embodied creatures, and physical proximity cannot be replaced.

Nonprofit professionals should strive to be on the road. Meet your donors in person: it will deepen their connection to your organization, yes, but it will also provide them the service of a real flesh-and-blood interaction. It’s not a panacea, but the expansion of our virtual lives is a vicious cycle, and a few more in-person interactions might break that open.

2 thoughts on “Combatting decline in trust in nonprofits”

  1. Sherry Williams says:

    I agree that declining trust in nonprofits is a serious concern.
    Because of the pandemic, the “work from home” option became popular. While working from home all or part of the time, we are not a part of our communities… not seeing what is happening on a day to day basis, not being seen as “doers” and “improvers” of society in a visible way.
    Our boards may be composed of bankers, attorneys and government officials who have become very accustomed to working from home. Not only are they less likely to have informed beliefs and street credibility without daily community interaction, they can also tend to encourage the nonprofits they serve to allow increased “working from home” to retain employees, attract new employees and keep up with the cool, new HR trends they are familiar with.
    As community servants helping improve the lives of our communities, do we really want employees who aren’t primarily interested in seeing, touching and feeling their constituents? Can we really be optimally effective? When we are working from home, can those we expect those whose jobs and roles in the community require daily face to face human interaction to view us as credible? Can we represent workers in health care, retail, food service, sanitation, etc. well when our community contributions are from the comfort of our living room while theirs are in the trenches?
    This new division of the workers who are engaged in the world vs working independent of human contact may or may not have something to do with the decline in trust in nonprofits. While so many of us are busy touting how much we like this flexible workstyle because it suits us, shouldn’t we ask those we serve if we are living up to their expectations?

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