Kristin Lord is President and CEO of IREX, a global education and development nonprofit organization that invests in human potential in more than 100 countries.
There is a rising tide of distrust in the United States and globally. According to the 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer, nearly 6 in 10 people across 24 countries say their default tendency is to distrust until they see evidence to the contrary. Another 64 percent say they are so distrustful that they are incapable of having constructive and civil debates about issues they disagree on.
This distrust has a price—and all of us are paying it. When levels of distrust are elevated, studies show that cooperation is harder. Costs to ensure people comply with laws, regulations, and contractual agreements are higher. Markets and public institutions work less efficiently. A recent study of pandemic preparedness across 177 countries, published in The Lancet, found that countries with lower levels of trust in government and fellow citizens were less likely to be successful in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Where can societies turn for leadership in solving societal problems at such a distrustful time? For a majority of global respondents surveyed in the 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer, it is not government. Indeed, only 42 percent think government can be trusted to successfully execute plans and strategies that yield results. In contrast, 57 percent say NGOs can be trusted to do so, though still below the 65 percent who trust business to solve societal problems. Respondents also said NGOs and business are equally trustworthy at coordinating cross-institutional efforts to solve societal problems, scoring 11 percent higher than government.
Other studies support this broad finding, with variations by country. A report on trust in civil society by Independent Sector found that even within a context of declining societal trust, Americans’ expectations for the nonprofit sector remained high. Indeed 84 percent of respondents said they were confident in the ability of nonprofits to strengthen American society, while 65 percent reported the same of philanthropy. They believed the role of the sector should be to help the less fortunate, make change, and lead by example.
When it comes to trust in institutions globally, NGOs score higher (59 percent) than government (52 percent) and media (50 percent), and slightly below business (61 percent), according to the Trust Barometer. But this is still not what nonprofit leaders would hope for. Trust comes primarily from delivering results competently and demonstrating integrity and care for others. If 41 percent don’t trust nonprofits, they are likely seen as falling short in one of those two areas. And stories of abuse and corruption at certain nonprofits only further chip away at trust in the sector as a whole.
What can nonprofit leaders do to close the trust gap? The Edelman Trust Institute recently convened a group of senior nonprofit leaders, with deep experience in philanthropy and NGOs. I participated in the discussion and our overall conclusion was that we must accept that the environment in which we operate has changed fundamentally— and we must change our approaches to adapt.
For instance, Giving Tuesday CEO Asha Curran points to demographic variations in trust. Young people put less trust in traditional nonprofits. They favor causes instead of institutions and different paths to change than their parents’ or grandparents. They are less interested in meeting immediate human needs, but even more interested in systemic changes that would prevent those needs, not to mention broader social injustices, from arising in the first place.
This view is reflected in a study from the BBB Wise Giving Alliance, which found that different generations in the U.S. and Canada also tend to place their trust in different charity types. For example, while civil rights and community action organizations are among the least trusted charity types overall, these organizations were among the most trusted by Gen Z (age 18-23). The top three most trusted categories of charities by “Matures” (age 75-92) were religious organizations, health organizations, and veterans’ organizations.
To build trust, nonprofits must also focus their attention on collective action, with an eye to inclusivity. That means building trust in the local communities where they work and being sure to elevate diverse voices.
To build trust, nonprofits must also focus their attention on collective action, with an eye to inclusivity. That means building trust in the local communities where they work and being sure to elevate diverse voices. It means, in the words of Jeroo Billimoria, Founder of One Family Foundation and Co-Founder of Catalyst 2030, joining together with other civil society organizations and building trust together. We need to put forward a collective vision of what we are for and communicate that we all must face challenges together.
NGO leaders must also learn to work in environments where misinformation and disinformation are rampant. Such disinformation can erode trust if people believe false or misleading stories about nonprofit organizations or their activities. Relationship-building, proactive communications, transparency, accountability, evaluation by independent third parties, and close attention to issues of reputation are more important than ever. So is building the base of evidence for interventions and supporting public education that helps people to learn to discern facts from fiction and recognize manipulative information.
Leaders also believe that trust in nonprofits is more complex than these aggregate numbers suggest. For instance, ONE and (RED) CEO Gayle Smith suggests it is more important to focus on how trust has shifted within the nonprofit sector rather than fairly small shifts overall, since the large size of the sector could obscure important changes. There is a lot of diversity within the sector so aggregate numbers mask sometimes wide differences among nonprofits, as Gargee Ghosh, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation President of Global Policy & Advocacy, also pointed out.
Finally, we must recognize that process matters. How we engage—not just with whom and on what issues—matters enormously to building trust. Deep listening, and respect, must be paramount. And deeper engagement leads to deeper levels of trust. According to the Independent Sector report referenced earlier, those who report regularly receiving services from nonprofits report higher than average trust scores and 42 percent say their interactions with the organization improved their impression of nonprofits generally.
The bottom line is that trust matters when it comes to support for nonprofit organizations. It is at the root of their relationship with publics and core to their missions. Trust, therefore, deserves far more intentional consideration than it typically gets. The pay-off could be huge. And if nonprofit leaders can build broader social trust, beyond their own organizations, their impact on human well-being will escalate even further.