Report: The Factors That Drive Trust (or Distrust) in Nonprofits

An Independent Sector study finds that the level of trust people place in nonprofits correlates with their economic status, location, and other factors. The report offers four steps to strengthen this valuable asset.

To a significant degree, people trust nonprofit organizations. But when you look more closely at different communities, the picture gets more complicated.

This is a key finding of Independent Sector’s latest report, Trust in Civil Society, which examines the level of public trust in nonprofits and what they can do to strengthen it. The research, based on two separate studies of 3,000 American adults, was conducted in partnership with Edelman Intelligence.

The report [PDF] reveals that, overall, the public has high trust in the positive impact of nonprofits, but variations exist among different groups.

“While 59 percent of the public report high trust in nonprofits to do what is right, that trust is concentrated among urbanites with high incomes and levels of education,” the authors write. “Rural Americans and those with lower incomes and educational attainment are more likely to express skepticism about nonprofits. However, the most concerning finding is respondents from underserved communities most in need
of support report the lowest levels of trust in nonprofits.”

Calling trust the sector’s “most valuable asset,” the report notes that those who trust a nonprofit are more likely to engage with it, often giving their time and money.

“Statistical analysis reveals that trust and outcomes are interlinked—high trust leads to more giving and volunteering, but engagement and positive experiences with nonprofits also enhance trust,” the report states.

What Leads to Distrust

Distrust is often connected to how well—or poorly—nonprofits communicate their message. Of the 12 percent of respondents who have low trust in nonprofits, many expressed concerns about the organizations’ connection with scandals, lack of transparency, and perceived ulterior motives. Some of these respondents also cited bad personal experiences with nonprofits.

Politics is also a factor. In addition to being less educated and more likely to live in rural areas, those who distrust nonprofits also tend to be less politically active. And Democrats are more likely to trust nonprofit motives than Republicans.

Other factors include age—Gen Z and millennial adults are more likely to report growing trust in nonprofits than older generations—and racial demographics. The study found that Black (41 percent) and Hispanic (47 percent) adults were most likely to report increased trust in nonprofits over the last decade, with white (31 percent) and Asian (38 percent) respondents less likely.

Four elements to build Trust

The report highlights four factors that can help nonprofits win trust for their organizations: ability, integrity, dependability, and purpose. Purpose is the most important factor for building trust, followed by integrity.

In a blog post, Independent Sector President and CEO Dan Cardinali said the findings demonstrate the need for the nonprofit sector to step up to meet the current crises facing the nation.

“At the heart of the social contract is trust. Recently we’ve seen two powerful examples: the extraordinary response of nonprofits to meet the demands the pandemic has created in our communities, and the protests of thousands of people of all races, religions, and orientations fighting injustices against Black people across the world,” Cardinali wrote. “Finally, in this moment, we have a more common trust in the stories, the data, and reality of structural racism embedded in our founding and in our policies. It is on all of us, collectively, to harness that recognition toward action. We hope that diving into this trust report helps us to do just that.“

(natasaadzic/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a senior editor for Associations Now, a former newspaper guy, and a man who is dangerous when armed with a good pun. MORE

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