In Nonprofits we Trust? Not.

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on February 9th, 2018 in Thoughts & Commentary

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The report from the “2018 Edelman Trust Barometer,” the 18th annual trust and credibility survey, was recently released.  It measures the trust people have in four sectors of society:  business, government, media, and nonprofits.  Based on information collected between October 28 and November 20, 2017, from 33,000 respondents in 28 countries via an on-line survey, trust is not alive and well in 2018, especially in the United States.

A neat twist to this survey is that it divides respondents into two groups:  the “informed public” and the “mass population.”  To be a member of the informed public, a participant must be between 25 and 64 years old, college-educated and in the top 25% of her/his income bracket for her/his age and country, and “report significant media consumption and engagement in business news and public policy.”  Anyone not in the informed public falls into the mass population group.  By dividing responses thusly, it allows us to see if, in fact, the better educated and better off, perhaps a larger part of your donor base, think like everyone else.

Looking across all 28 countries, the informed public lost trust in nonprofits in 2018 compared to 2017, dropping by 3% to 64% (tying with trust in business, and well above the 53% who express trust in government and the media).  Despite this drop, the informed public still has more trust in the nonprofit sector than does the general population, where only 53% expressed trust in nonprofits in both 2017 and 2018.  But despite the general population having less trust in nonprofits than the informed public, the general population trusts nonprofits a tad more than business (52%) and definitely more than government and media (both of which came in at 43%).

Focusing just on the United States, the picture becomes grim.  Categorizing each country by its overall trust score, the report assesses each country as a truster (scores greater than 58), neutral (scores between 50 and 58) or distruster (scores of less than 50).  The report notes that “[n]o country saw steeper declines than the United States, with a 37-point aggregate drop in trust across all institutions.”  Among the informed public, the U.S. fell from being a truster, with a score of 68, to a distruster, with a score of 46, falling to last place among all 28 countries.  This loss of trust is uniformly shared, as there were no differences by gender, age or region of the country, and no difference with the attitudes of the general population, as well.

The report notes that 2018 saw the “steepest, most dramatic” loss of trust in American institutions ever recorded.  For a sector whose very viability is built on relationships of trust—the trust of clients that we will help them achieve the impact we promise, the trust of donors that we will be good stewards of their money and fulfill our promises to clients and society, the trust of our partners that we will ….—the depths of this loss of trust should make us all shudder.

But it is not all bleak, as there are lessons we can and must learn from this.  First, respondents to this survey identified nonprofits as the institutions to help move the country forward, noting, in particular, three roles for nonprofits to fill:  protect the poor, foster a sense of community and point out abuses of power.  These are things that our sector has historically done, and done well, but perhaps too many have stepped back from the more uncomfortable aspects of these responsibilities in favor of playing it safe and not ruffling feathers.  Second, we can and must ask ourselves what we are doing to curry trust, how well are we doing it and what else should we be doing?  It has been many decades since the mantra of “transparency and accountability” entered our lexicon and, still, too few take it seriously.  Not enough have solid data about the impact of their programs; too few have boards where anyone beyond the finance committee is actively engaged in solid, financial guardianship; too many don’t invest in the professional development and just compensation of their staff to ensure the finest caliber of employees; and most aren’t doing all they should and could to cultivate and steward that font of trust and dollars—individual donors.

Trust is our bread and butter.  As such, we need to work at deserving it.


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