As part of its “2020 Vision: Key Trends for the Year Ahead” series, The Chronicle of Philanthropy included a piece by Ben Gose last week that ominously opened, “As trust in nonprofits sinks to new lows, charitable organizations could face many threats to their ability to carry out their missions, including trouble raising cash, attracting top talent, and persuading Americans to take action on social, environmental, and other key issues.”

In fact, according to the 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer, cited by Gose, only a relatively low 52% of Americans have faith that nonprofits will “do what is right.” For-profit businesses actually fare two percentage points better.

Gose lists a number of possibilities for this low level of trust in nonprofits, including a general anti-institutional climate, generational change, and a series of recent scandals. One possibility not considered, however, is embedded in that opening line of Gose’s. What if the public is losing trust in nonprofits precisely because they’re spending ever less time on what we would consider traditional charity, and ever more time “persuading Americans to take action on social, environmental, and other key issues”?

While “take action” is a nice, neutral term, there’s little doubt among nonprofit leaders about what sort of action that would be. It would be distinctly progressive action: battling gender discrimination, reversing climate change, rectifying economic inequality, and so forth. Nothing wrong with those goals. Indeed, there’s a substantial American political party devoted to them.

But that’s sort of the point. Nonprofit leaders don’t see “taking action” on these objectives as partisan causes at all. They are, rather, manifestly reasonable, objectively good causes, supported by all people of good will everywhere. We all implicitly know to whom the summons to “take action” is directed, and it isn’t, say, supporters of more-traditional social and cultural norms.

But supporters of traditionalism, while almost entirely frozen out of the activist nonprofit sector, do in fact constitute a large share of the American electorate, and of the public upon whose giving many nonprofits rely. One explanation for the low  trust in institutions is that this share of the public no longer believes them to be run by trained, well-intentioned, objective professionals, operating only in the public interest.

Institutional elites have come to be seen, rather, as isolated, smug, and contemptuous toward those who don’t share their enlightened views. As nonprofit elites continue to assume that all people of good will necessarily share their agenda—that a call to “take action” is simply, by definition, a call to progressive action—are they manifesting that same isolation, smugness, and contempt toward less-advanced thinkers? And could that be an explanation for the fall-off in trust, just as it has been for other major institutions of American society?

Seeing that which is “hidden,” and disagreeing with it

That’s certainly suggested by other findings from the Edelman Trust Barometer. Apparently, Gose notes, the “top two reasons Americans lack trust in nonprofits were ‘Leadership has a hidden agenda that I don’t always agree with,’ and ‘They’re more focused on raising money than in getting things done.’”

The first reason must be a puzzle for nonprofit leaders. Surely there couldn’t be anything less “hidden” than their determination to leave behind the old, primitive task of merely delivering goods and services to the marginalized, and instead pursuing the fundamental transformation of the American social and economic order in the name of social justice. But while nonprofit leadership may regard this agenda as simply what any reasonable, public-spirited institution would pursue, a large part of the public sees this rather as a manifestly partisan effort to reshape the American political landscape in ways it doesn’t approve. It sees a “hidden agenda that I don’t always agree with.”

One of the ironic advantages of having led or been on the program staff at a conservative foundation, as were we three Giving Review editors, is that we became accustomed to the charge of harboring a hidden agenda. The smallest grant to the most-local nonprofit, our numerous critics insisted, surely must conceal a diabolically reactionary plot to subvert the public interest. If only for daily survival, the small world of conservative nonprofits has learned to think politically—to consider whatever it does in light of the least-flattering characterization that might, and inevitably will, be made about it.

But for progressives, that sort of suspicion is new and unsettling. They’re accustomed to being treated automatically as the good guys, manifestly operating in the public interest. As they stumble into this new and more-realistic world, their hitherto-unchallenged self-regard makes them very poor political operatives.

There’s some truth to all the other explanations for the low trust in nonprofits offered by the experts quoted by Gose. But it’s striking that none of them said this: the nonprofit sector today is increasingly dedicated to a political agenda dramatically at odds with the beliefs of at least half the American people, so of course public trust is low, just as it is in other major institutions similarly out of step with public attitudes.

Nonprofit activists have every right to pursue that political agenda, of course. But they need to to understand that the public now sees that agenda for what it is, and has adjusted its level of institutional trust accordingly. If the sector could at least acknowledge that its agenda is deeply controversial and disruptive, and not just arrogantly assume that all reasonable people must agree with it, that would begin to accord public opinion the respect it deserves, and address the charge that it’s hiding an agenda.