Embrace Trust

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on December 18th, 2009 in Articles, Thoughts & Commentary

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Trust.  It is such a huge word for the nonprofit sector yet one we spend little time talking about.  Our whole currency, if you will, is based on trust:  our clients, donors, collaborators, and others trust that we will do a good job, deliver a valuable product, protect and steward our dollars, fulfill our mission promises, etc.  If these stakeholders stop trusting us, we are doomed.

Yet, when was the last time the staff and board of your organization talked about trust? What does it means to be a trustworthy organization? How do we execute and demonstrate that trust to all of our various stakeholders, from ourselves to donors to clients to competitors?

The issue of trust is one that I think about a lot, but particularly this time of year when every nonprofit is asking for those end of year gifts and so many individuals are thinking about where to give their precious dollars.  But two events coincided with the time of year to raise this question even higher on my list of “internal dialogues.”  First, I recently had to visit the nuclear medicine department at my local hospital for a test.  I trusted that this injection of nuclear compound into my system was safe; I trusted the nurse’s response to my question of how long the compound would remain in my system.  Why?  Not simply because the hospital is ranked as one of the top 100 in the country (and has been there for a good number of years), but because I can look up the research that demonstrates the overall risk and addresses the ratio of risk of the injection to benefit of medical diagnoses and any consequent needed corrective action.  In other words, I can read for myself—the basis for the ranking, the research—and determine if the trust is warranted.  I am not taking anyone’s word, no slick advertisements, no leaps of faith.

Second, I receive daily Google alerts for nonprofits, which can include links to anywhere between five  and 25 headlines.  On an alert last week, 1/3 of the headlines had to do with an employee—executive director or chief financial officer—or board member “misappropriating” funds.  Not a behavior that instills trust in people, but a behavior that is, unfortunately, increasingly all too common in the sector.   Hope those organizations are talking about trust now!

But the time to talk about being a trustworthy organization, like so many other things, is not when the negative spotlight is focused on you.  The time to talk and, more importantly, the reason to talk about being a trustworthy organization is so that the negative light never shines on you.’

The new year is right around the corner.  People will make personal new year resolutions, most of which, statistics show, are short-lived.   You would serve your nonprofit well, however, if you make a new year resolution to make being a trustworthy organization front and center—and stick to it.  Have those discussions at the board and staff level of what it looks like for your organization to be trustworthy. Where is our evidence of that trustworthiness, from our own impact evaluation data to our testimonials to our board-developed policies that protect our money to our Form 990 that paints a truthful and positive picture?  What do we do to ensure that all individuals associated with us understand and value integrity? How do we demonstrate our commitment to honesty?

Trust is not something to which any nonprofit can afford to give lip service.  We must embrace it and demonstrate our constant commitment to it.

The opinions expressed in Nonprofit University Blog are those of writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of La Salle University or any other institution or individual.

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