Given the decline of trust in American society, particularly trust in institutions, it’s refreshing to think of fundraising as a profession with a higher calling.
Today we are revisiting this Philanthropy Daily classic from 2018 asking the question: what is the role of the fundraiser in building trust in civil society?
Trust is a scarce commodity nowadays. We don’t trust the media, lawyers, or the criminal justice system. We don’t trust our clergy. We have mixed feelings about the police. We trust our politicians more than we have in ten years, which still isn’t very much. Some of us might trust our neighbors, but let’s be honest—that trust would probably evaporate if we suspected them of voting differently than we do.
Certain kinds of trust still abound. Most of us trust that other drivers will obey traffic rules. We trust that our airline pilot knows what all those buttons in the cockpit are for. We trust that our doctor can tell the difference between a common cold and pneumonia. We trust that a drive-thru burger won’t give us food poisoning.
These examples, though, might ring a little hollow. They refer to trust that is based, for the most part, in jurisprudence. You’ll probably sue that burger joint if you contract E. coli. You know this and the restaurant manager knows this, leading to a sort of trust between you. Such trust is critical at times, and it’s necessary in any society that aspires to be orderly and just. But trusting that you’ll have legal recourse when someone else does the wrong thing is different than trusting that same someone to do the right thing.
In fact, without trust in one another, the only thing capable of holding us together is the force of law. It’s a lamentable result, perhaps an inevitable one, of liberalism’s steady advancement that we rely on our government to insulate us from all manner of risks, and to provide the security, resources, and opportunities we may have once enjoyed within the context of now-weakened institutions closer to home. The family. Churches. Unions. Civic associations.
There are significant consequences when we fail to cultivate trust. We’re affected individually and corporately. We lead lives of increased isolation and alienation, with disastrous implications for our health. We engage in vicious political arguments. We’re less generous. Institutions, especially, bear the brunt of our misgivings. The average American is less and less likely to vote, to attend church, and to get married. You might refer to these trends as a decline in associational life.
How to reverse the trend? How can we possibly begin rebuilding the social capital that has been slowly decaying for years?
Here’s a self-interested answer from a couple of fundraisers, but one that’s no less true for being self-interested: the gift officer.
Far-fetched? In the popular imagination, a fundraiser is someone who calls you in the middle of dinner and asks you to give money to a charity you’ve never heard of. You know the type. The reality, thankfully, is much different.
Gift officers are ambassadors of institutions. We’re apologists for organizations that are trying to heal sick kids, feed hungry families, teach adults how to read, shelter the homeless, strengthen democracy. The list goes on.
To support these vastly different missions, fundraisers are engaged in a common cause: building trust in institutions. We’re advocates for the value of associational life. We meet with strangers, neighbors, community leaders, and longstanding supporters, and we speak honestly and transparently about the successes and failings of the organizations we represent.
When things are going well, trust will manifest itself as monetary donations. Part of our job is to ensure that those gifts are used responsibly, in a manner that’s faithful both to the organization’s mission and to the donor’s own goals. Ideally, each donation will be used to further the work of the institution, which will advance its reputation and worthiness of being trusted.
But donations aren’t the only sign that we’re successfully building trust. We build trust by merely meeting with people and demonstrating, contra common expectations, that we’re interested in more than the size of their bank account. We build trust by inviting others to participate—as volunteers or board members, for example—in our organization’s work.
We’re talking here about more than “friendraising” (to use a term that probably shouldn’t ever be used). We build trust when we invite others to full membership in the life of our organizations, institutions, and associations. That will mean different things in different contexts, but the goal is always to foster greater participation and greater identification with the organization and its work.
At some point, it’s no longer even primarily a matter of getting others to trust our institutions. It’s a matter of inviting them to belong, and to faithfully shape the institution from within, guided by respect for what it is and animated by hope for what it might become.
Given the decline of trust in American society, particularly trust in institutions, it’s refreshing to think of fundraising as a profession that doesn’t just enable discrete outcomes like improved literacy rates or decreased carbon footprints. We fundraisers are building public confidence in the institutions uniquely capable of achieving those outcomes.
To the extent that we’re successful, we can foster trust that’s rooted in something more substantial than the threat of litigation. Trust that’s rooted, say, in our shared pursuit of virtue and the common good. Much better to trust the burger place when you know they’re fanatically committed to making a great burger, and to observing the practices (including food safety protocols) that facilitate such an end.
If you take seriously the notion that institutions, big and small, are essential for human thriving, it’s worth considering how fundraisers play a role in both maintaining and reinvigorating institutions all around us. The good news is that trust has a way of begetting further trust. Our modest efforts to reestablish faith in institutions can help repair—or help to begin to repair—the fractures in our social life.
Booking a big gift is nice. Restoring trust? Now that’s a worthwhile year-end goal.